Churches in Revelation: Summary & Response
If you’re not already there, let’s turn to Revelation 2 and 3. And if you don’t have an outline, raise your hand because you will want one to follow along. We’re going to cover a lot of territory.
Life is full of temptations to believe lies about who we are and what we need. And that is true not just for individuals, that is true for churches. I find it interesting that the letters to the seven churches in Revelation were written about 30 years after these churches were planted. So these churches had many years to grow, thrive, flourish, temptations to turn aside, believe lies, fade away. We as a church were planted almost 30 years ago. We as a church have had many years to grow, flourish, thrive, believe lies, turn aside.
And so the message to these seven churches is a message, yes, individual messages to seven real churches, but also there is a message that comes out from the composite of these letters that I believe we would do well to hear. One of the ways I tried to listen to this whole message coming through all seven letters is to print out the seven letters in a way (we’ll put it on the screen, you won’t be able to read the words) in a way where you can see all seven letters. I went through (I know this is rather primitive) with a highlighter and marker and pen and began to see some themes — some are obvious, and some are more subtle — that are fairly consistent throughout all seven letters. So one of our goals today is to step back and to say, “Okay, Lord, our church is pretty close to the age of most of these churches. You had a word for them. What are you saying to us?”
So I want to summarize seven — if you look at all those different colors and marks you’re going to see seven truths emerge. There are more. I know it’s going to feel a little overwhelming, because I’m going to move through them pretty quickly, the first six. But we’re going to land on the seventh, and I believe that is really the main one we need to hear.
So let’s go.
Number 1, spiritual beings are active in and around churches. Spiritual beings are active in churches.
You notice how every letter is addressed “to the angel of the church.” Now while some commentators interpret “angel” as more loosely, “messenger,” which could refer to the person who carried the message or most likely the person who received the message, the pastor of each particular church. I believe it can mean that. I believe the best way to interpret it is just to take it at face value as angels, actual angels, who do at least three things. One is they represent the churches, they provide help to the churches, and they communicate the heavenly existence of God’s people — that what we see is not all that we are as a people. So, “to the angel of the church.”
But you notice also another spiritual being is referred to quite often throughout the letters, and that is Satan, or the devil. He is referred to six times in these seven short letters. Now we must never be enamored by or ignorant of our enemy. If we think the enemy of our souls or his many minions do not care at all about what happens in North Hills Church, we are deceived. But we also find great comfort in the fact that there are angels who, similar to what’s happening I think in Daniel 10 or Daniel 12 or a place like Matthew 18:10, there are angelic beings who provide help and oversight. Spiritual beings are active in churches.
Number 2, Jesus knows his churches. Every letter has a statement like, “I know your works.” “I know your tribulation and your poverty.” “I know where you dwell.” Like the old gospel song: “Jesus knows all about our struggles.” And he also, as you’ll notice in these letters, knows about our successes. He’s quick to commend them, to rejoice in what God is doing in them, and they’re doing well. He is not detached or aloof. He knows his churches.
Number 3, works matter. This Greek word translated “works” or “deeds,” “ergon,” appears twelve times in these seven little letters, fourteen in some manuscripts. Now this can create conflict in the hearts of some. If you have grown up in a super conservative church where you feel like you were bound in legalism, there are times where you hear the word “works,” and there’s an immediate sense of guilt and oppression. Like “Oh no, I haven’t done enough, and I haven’t done the right ones.” And so there’s a desire to pull away from even talking about works.
And then there’s a movement on the other side, what we call libertarian kind of churches, that downplays works, basically teaching that it really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re sincere and no one ends up in the hospital. God’s good to go. Don’t worry about that. And so there’s a steering away from, “Christianity is just about relationships, it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s who you are.”
And if we’re talking about how you gain a relationship with God through Christ, and of course it is not based on works. Look again at Ephesians 2:8-10,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works.”
Just let that soak in. “Not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” None of us can boast that our works have impressed God or gained a relationship with him. But then look what verse 10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for” (for what?) “good works.”
Did you feel like you just swore? We’re created for good works “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Works matter.
Number 4, we must know how to repent. We must learn how to repent.
This Greek word “metanoeo” appears eight times in these seven letters. Jesus calls his children to repent, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s a gift to be able to repent. It is a curse to not know how to repent. And to repent does not mean, “Hey, by the way, if I did it anything that might have hurt your feelings, I’m sorry.” No, that’s kind of a passive aggressive way of saying “You’re too sensitive.” To repent means, “My thinking has been wrong and I’ve made wrong choices.” And be specific. “I’ve done this wrong. Will you forgive me?” There’s a change of direction — the way I was thinking and the way I’m thinking now, the way I was heading and the way I’m heading now. Repentance. Jesus calls his people to repent.
Number 5, the Spirit speaks in the words of Jesus. Jesus speaks each one of these letters. They all, right near the beginning, have the words “these are the words of him” (talking about Jesus). And they all end with the same statement somewhere near the end, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” So this is Jesus speaking. Then at the end Jesus is saying, “Hey, make sure you listen to the Spirit. Make sure you have an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying.” That’s very interesting. We can neglect this a couple different ways.
One is, we can downplay the words of Christ. There are many movements where if the preacher just gets up and quotes from the Gospel of Mark, people feel like they haven’t really heard a fresh word from the Spirit. As if the only way the Spirit is speaking is something fresh, in other words, in contrast to the Bible. And that’s divorcing the words of Christ from the words of the Spirit in an unhealthy way. But then we can fall off the cliff the other way and become just Bible trivia people thinking if we learned a Bible fact, then we heard the Spirit. No, that’s why Jesus warns us at the end of every one of these letters, “Hey, just because you’ve heard my words with your ears, doesn’t mean you’ve heard what the Spirit is saying.” Now he’s not saying the Spirit has a different message. He is saying the ministry of the Spirit is to take these words, and to convict, and to apply, and to bear witness in our hearts, and to take these words to their destination and accomplish what God sent them to accomplish. I want to hear what the Spirit has to say to me, and he speaks through the words of Christ.
Number 6, Jesus doesn’t give any participation trophies. You may have noticed this through these letters, that in every letter, Jesus promises extravagant blessings to the one who “conquers.” The Greek word “nikao,” the “overcomer.” Not to the seat warmer, not to the hypocrisy inspector, not to the attender, but to the overcomer, the victor.
About a week and a half ago our elders were praying over this passage, listening and reading all seven of these letters and asking the Lord, “Show us, as a church. As we’ve gone through these seven letters, we want to hear specifically what are you saying to us? What are you convicting us of? What are you comforting us and encouraging us with?” Allan Sherer pulled out a chart, a multi-colored chart, (as Allan is prone to pull out of his pocket) that had all these blessings/promises that Christ was promising us in these. You can break it down under those that would fall into the category of immortality: the fruit of the tree of life, not harmed by the second death, the hidden manna, name never erased. Or honor: victor’s crown, white stone, morningstar, dressed in white. Or authority: over the nations, sit with me on my throne. We could go on and on. There are at least 13, depending on how you count them. Jesus is pouring out blessings on conquerors. Now again, that can feel intimidating because most of us don’t feel like a conqueror. We’re trying to be a survivor, get through the day, many days. But here’s the encouragement I think for all of us, the words of Jesus in John 16:33, when he said to his disciples,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have” (nikao, same word) “I have overcome the world.”
I (Jesus) have conquered the world. And because I have conquered the world, notice I’m not guaranteeing you’re always going to have a fun time. I’m actually promising you tribulation. But in the end, your victory is guaranteed because you’re in me and I have overcome. This isn’t something you generate. This is something, Jesus is saying, “I generate and I call you into.” So the promise, well the warning that there are no participation trophies is not a threat, it’s actually a promise. I don’t call you on my team so you can sit on the bench. “I’m just happy to be here. All you spiritual people who can sing and be missionaries, you’re really the conquerors. I’m just a loser on the bench.” No! I’m calling all of us, all of my team, to be on the field. And my victory is guaranteeing your victory. Let’s go! There are no participation trophies.
Number 7, Jesus is who we need. I believe this is the message of all messages in these letters. And I want to walk you through how I came to that place. It came a couple different ways, I’ll give you one. One of the ways this struck me is, if you look again at the letters as a whole and the markings, what you begin to notice is that they are very plain in the middle of each letter. Do you notice that? And I actually made a mistake by highlighting up at the pink, at the top of each one, too far, because really the only thing that is repeated is “these are the words of him.” And then the description Jesus gives of himself is never repeated. It’s different each time. Secondly, the reason there’s so much white in the middle of each letter, no highlighting for the most part in the middle of each letter, is because each letter is addressing the unique condition of each church. Now put those two together. Follow me here.
Jesus describes himself at the beginning of every letter with different words, and Jesus describes the condition of each church, both good and bad, commendation and confrontation, uniquely. He is revealing that “who I am is exactly what you need.” Who I am as a person — what I’m like, what I do, the power I have — the nature of my person, is exactly what you need in your unique situation. Let me show you a chart of this. I think it may be in your notes. For example, Ephesus was standing but they had left their love in the rear view mirror. And Jesus described himself in the first verse as “holding the seven stars,” which means he rules and reigns over them, and as “walking among the lamp stands,” which means, I’m right there with you. I am among you. Smyrna, whose condition was preparing for suffering. Jesus describes himself as the first and the last — the one who was dead, the one who died, and the one who lives. In other words, “what you’re about to go through, I went through and came out victorious.” We could go through each one and apply specifically who Jesus is to where they are. But I want to answer the question, why is this so significant?
So let me back up a little bit and tell you how this example came in elder meeting when we were praying over this. We had talked through it, listened to the letters again, talked about specific ways of applying it, and we’re all crying out together for the Spirit to lead us as a church. And this picture came before me of a person who was sick, going to the doctor, getting a prescription, going home. It helped, but then there were side effects, going back, getting another one, same thing. And this happened several times to where one problem was helped or fixed, but then the medication created another problem.
And finally the doctor says to the patient, “Hey let me do something a little unconventional. Let me come home with you. I want to see what’s going on in your life. I want to understand the stress you’re under. I want to see how you process that stress. I want to do a genogram on you. I want us to walk through your family history, your relational history, your psychological and physical history and how all that may factor into how you respond to this illness, how you head towards a life of holistic health.”
Can you imagine a doctor being able to do that? They’re bringing in their suitcase. They’re living with you. They’re seeing you process, what’s your exercise routine, what’s your diet like? Can we change some of those things that can help you?
You have a resident doctor who is saying, “I want to bring all that I am and know into all that you actually are. I don’t want to just give you a prescription. I want to give you a person.” As we’re praying over this, this message just became so clear. That’s what Jesus is doing to the seven churches. I’m not just giving you a prescription which may fix one problem but create another one, which may apply right now, but then your body (physical body) builds up tolerances so that medication that worked at one point will not work later.
So we are spiritually similar to that. We go through seasons of life. So Jesus is not merely giving us a prescription, he is giving us himself. I am who you need. Now think about that in light of going the distance. We’re talking about churches that have been around for almost 30 years, like us.
Yes, there are principles and strategies. Yes, Jesus gives many of those. He warns them of false teaching. He warns them of immorality. There are concrete things we need to know and to be warned of and to do and believe. Yes, but there are so many changes in life, in different seasons we go through, that Jesus is saying what you really need, at the core, is you need me. I am with you. I am going to walk you through. I’m going to give you wisdom to face these new challenges. And as you encounter new things in the future that you can’t even imagine, I am never going to leave you. I am never going to forsake you. I have given you my Spirit, and we’re going to walk through this to victory together. That’s the message of these seven letters. Ultimately, it is, I am who you need.
And one of the reasons this is so important is because of that, so often when we fix one problem, we run to the other extreme. Have you noticed that? Just like we do physically, we do this spiritually. You see that in these seven churches. You see Ephesus, who is standing strong, but they forgot to keep loving. And you see Thyatira, who is loving, but they’ve become too loving. They’re tolerating things they shouldn’t tolerate. They need to stand. And you can see the same thing in America. Somebody grows up in one context, and then they react and they fall off the cliff on the other side. Churches do that.
And Jesus is saying, “You know, I am the one you need.” We need a relationship with the one who is faithful and true.
As you look at that little place to fill out, at the bottom of your notes, I’d encourage you to do that today or tomorrow or sometime this week, right now, if the Spirit’s already put his finger on… as you look back. For me, specifically the church at Laodicea, last week the Spirit really exposed my heart on how easily I believe lies about myself, and how it’s easy week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, to fall into ruts that are not true. One example, I can begin to read things, whether it’s scripture or good books or whatever, and my first response is, “Oh! I’m going to use that here in this counseling situation or weave that into this message because this hopefully will be an encouragement to them and they could really use this.” And the Spirit is saying, “No, actually I showed that to you because you need it. You need this. You are not just a “sermonator.” You are a person who needs what I have to give. You need me. You need to sit at my feet and hear what I have to say to your heart first. And yes, I’m going to call you to pass that on, but you need to let it go deep in your own heart first. Live it out first.”
But those kinds of lies that can be based on good things — “I really want my kids to get this.” “I really want my life group to get this.” “I really want this for my wife or my husband.” All of those things can be good but are very subtle lies, as if the Spirit doesn’t have something to say to you right now. Let’s ask him to give us that open heart to exactly who he is and what he has for us.
Father, when we’ve been around for a while, which I know before you is a very short time, in relation to you it’s very short. But as a church we can develop methods and strategies and ways of doing things that in many ways are healthy and good. We need them. But thank you for these seven letters that are saying to us, we need you. You are the one we need. You are the faithful and true witness. You are the beginning, and you are the end. You know us and you tell us what we need to hear. And you don’t just give us a formula to follow, you give us yourself. Yes, you teach us principles and truths, yes, but you give us much more than that. You move in. You call us into a relationship. You are knocking on the door of our hearts and you are saying, “I want to come in. I want to eat with you. I want to do life with you. I want to change you, yes. But I want to walk this road with you that leads to everlasting life.”
And Father, we thank you that you haven’t just given us a to-do list, that you have given us yourself. So we’re running to you. We’re running to you, Lord. We want to know ourselves in light of who you tell us we are. We want to know you, not in light of what we’ve experienced or what we’ve imagined you to be, but who you really are, who you say you are. And we’re banking on that, Lord. We’re putting all our weight, all our faith in you. And just as you’ve led us in the past, you will lead us in the future, you will be what we need when we need it. Thank you for turning our hearts to you. As we respond now, let there be just so many prayers prayed and so much crying out, “Yes, Jesus! We know ourselves and our future and our hopes and dreams and everything all in you. We’re not holding on to backups. You are who we need.”
We thank you in Jesus name, amen.