Love the Church
Every week after I preach I think, “Man, I should have mentioned that,” or “I wish I would have hit that point harder and made it more clear.”
There’s never time enough to say everything I want to say, but I really should have said more about one phrase in verse 5 of Revelation 1.
Revelation 1:5 (NIV)
5 To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood,
To Him who LOVES us.
Jesus loves us. He loves us, this I know for the Bible tells me so. He loves us, me and you. We need to hear that, to believe that, to remember that.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John begins this letter with that as one of the main points. As he’s introducing Jesus to us, one of the first ideas John jots down is this: to Him who loves us...
Jesus LOVES His Church, despite all the bad and ugly behavior of His people.
Jesus loves us. He loves you. He loves those who belong to Him and who have gathered in His name.
A proper view of Jesus includes the unbelievable and glorious truth that Jesus loves us.
>Last week, our main point was this: Because the time is near, we need to see Jesus as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.
And my prayer for us as a church and as individuals is: Jesus, be big! We want our hearts and minds and souls and strength to be consumed with the love and grace and majesty and splendor of Jesus.
The church needs a big view of Jesus.
What happens when the Church has a low view of Jesus? Well, Revelation 2-3 happens. When a church has a low view of Jesus, it affects everything else.
When you read through the letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor, you quickly figure out these are churches in crisis.
Some of these churches are weighed down with sin. The church at Ephesus has lost its first love. False teaching has infiltrated the church at Pergamum. Some members of the Pergamum and Thyatira churches have fallen into idol worship and and sexual immorality. Sardis is full of hypocrites. Laodicea is full of lukewarm folk, complacent and self-sufficient.
As Matt Proctor puts it:
“These are some seriously messed-up churches.
As a young man, John had seen the Church at its start. In Acts, those first believers were a tight-knit community deeply in love with Jesus. They were marked by deep faith, radical obedience, contagious generosity, and bold witness. But now, as an old man, John sees churches that have lost their way.
They had lost sight of Jesus. They had become too familiar with Him to see Him for who He really is.”
There’s the crisis of being too familiar with Jesus, taming Him, making Him your pet and companion, your co-pilot.
My good friend, Jared Wilson says, “Jesus is not your co-pilot. He’s in the driver’s seat and you’re in back laying on a stretcher.”
To be too familiar is not a good thing.
There is sin present in all of these churches (as there is today). Some of these churches in Revelation 2-3 are blending-in to their cultural surroundings, complacent, and compromised.
But a few of the churches were obedient to Christ (not perfect, but obedient) and the powers-that-be were against them. They were faithful, but fearful, too.
It was tough to be a Christian then and there.
Not tough like “people are gonna make fun of you” or “they aren’t going to understand why you do what you do” or “they can’t believe you won’t join in with them in all their reindeer games.”
No, to be a Christian in that day was tough like: you’re gonna be tortured and killed for your faith. Tough like: the emperor is going to impale you on a stick, light you on fire, and use you for a street lamp simply because you happily say: “Jesus is Lord,” when everyone knows you’re supposed to say: “Caesar is Lord.”
Tough to be a Christian.
Fear is not the opposite of faith, despite what sweatshirts and bumper stickers say. Fear is not the opposite of faith; foolishness is the opposite of faith.
Jesus reminds the Church that He is with them, that He is before all things. He is the A and the Z. He holds the keys to death, meaning the worst thing to befall us isn’t the end for us if we belong to Him.
Revelation 2-3 presents the Church as it really is—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If you have a red letter Bible, you’ll notice that every word of these two chapters are in red print, meaning this is Jesus addressing these churches.
Jesus is speaking to His Church using seven representative churches to communicate to all individual congregations.
Some people—scholars, commentators, professors, friends—believe Jesus is speaking to these seven churches alone, the congregations in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
This is not an issue I’m willing to fight over (as I alluded to last week, in a room of 100 people there are probably 90 different opinions and 10 people who don’t care).
I believe that these “seven” congregations probably symbolize all the churches in the Roman province of Asia (seven being the apocalyptic number for “completeness”).
Each of these seven churches reflect the kinds of challenges faced by Christians throughout Asia Minor in the late first century.
Each of these seven churches were located in communities of prominence, all located along the main roads. Three of these cities (Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum) contained temples dedicated to emperor worship.
All seven cities held a Roman law court. This is where believers could be put on trial for the capital crime of being a Christian. These would be good representative churches to address because they would be at the center of the crisis facing Christians at the time.
Jesus is speaking to all the churches in Asia Minor. Jesus is speaking to the Church today, right here and right now.
The messages to the churches are arranged similarly. Jesus addresses the angel or the messenger present with each church, introduces Himself and then starts in on what He has to say to them.
Jesus begins with
Each of the churches represented here have different things they’re commended for—the good stuff, what they’re doing well.
To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says:
2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
There’s a lot the Ephesians do well—they are hard-working, they are persevering, they don’t have any tolerance for the wicked, they know enough to test the false teachers who claim to be apostles.
To the church in Smyrna, Jesus tells them they’re spiritually rich in spite of their afflictions and poverty (2:9):
Revelation 2:9 (NIV)
9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!
The church in Pergamum:
13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
In the midst of extremely difficult circumstances, specifically in a place where the worship of the emperor was required, the Pergamumians…Pergamumites…Pergamums—the believers living in Pergamum have kept their faith; they have remained true to Jesus.
We will, I’m quite certain, find ourselves at this point before we now it—having to decide if we are going to remain true to Jesus, if we are going to hold fast to Jesus, or if we are going fold and bow the knee to Caesar.
Will we hold fast to Jesus’ word? Or will we let the winds of culture and tolerance drive us? We will be swayed by political movements or remain true to Jesus?
Faithfulness, refusal to renounce Jesus pleases Him; it’s a good thing. A necessary thing.
As for the Christians living and worshipping in Thyatira, Jesus says they’ve done good:
19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
What an encouraging summary. This is the idea—that our love and faith and service would not only continue, but that we’d do more and more. We don’t retire or age-out; the idea is to do more than we did at first.
All that could be said positively to the church in Sardis is this:
4 Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.
There were only a few people in Sardis who were alert and unstained, only a few who had been consistently obedient and courageously faithful. These few walk with Jesus, that is they live and commune with Him. They are dressed in white—pure and victorious because of their union with Jesus.
In Philadelphia—not the one with the cheesesteaks and cream cheese—in the 1st Century city of Philadelphia, Jesus commends them:
8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
There’s something special about the Philadelphia church: Jesus has only good things to say about them.
Again, they’re not perfect, but they have kept God’s Word and haven’t—for all the pressure surrounding them—denied Jesus. Their deeds are positive and they have kept the Lord’s commands.
On the flip side from the church in Philly is the church in Laodicea. Jesus has nothing good to say about them. That’s not a distinctive to be proud of. And yet, there it is.
Jesus rehearses what each church does well, and what they do poorly.
There’s plenty of good within the churches of Asia Minor, as there is today.
There’s plenty of good, and plenty of bad. Anywhere there is a group of people, there’s going to be sin. There’s going to be plenty of sin. Bunch of people gathered together = bunch of sin.
The Church is not perfect. It’s full of imperfect people. What’s more, the Enemy lurks about seeking to destroy the Church.
The Church faces disagreement and division, false teaching and faithlessness. Churches today aren’t immune from disagreement, division, false teaching, faithlessness, and many other kinds of behavior that is displeasing to Jesus.
Jesus has something to say about this to the churches.
For all the good things about the Ephesian church, it’s not all good. After recounting all the positive stuff, Jesus says this:
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.
One interpretation is that the Ephesians had lost its early love for Jesus. Another is that they had lost their love for one another.
It’s possible that it’s both. Love for others springs from love for Jesus. To have lost that love is a terrible tragedy.
The church in Sardis was known for her deeds, but not in a good way:
Revelation 3:1–2 (NIV)
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God.
Their reputation doesn’t match the reality. A church can appear alive, but be really, really dead. And it’s the Lord’s opinion that matters. The Lord knows the heart of a church; the outward appearance, the appearance of life doesn’t really factor.
The last of the churches listed is arguably the worst off. Jesus condemns the Laodicean church for being lukewarm; He’s gonna spit them out of His mouth. He’s disgusted with them.
15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Either cold or hot would be great. Cold water is refreshing when it’s hot; when it’s cold out, hot water feels really good.
The church there in Laodicea, like lukewarm water, is repugnant to Jesus. They are spiritually blind, bankrupt, pitiful, wretched, and naked. They have nothing with which to approach the Lord.
It’s a bad scene. As Matt Proctor writes: “These are some seriously messed-up churches.”
The sad truth is: there’s something worse than bad.
There is some stuff worse than bad, some stuff the church does goes beyond sinfulness to outright denial. This is the ugly reality of many churches, then when Revelation was written and throughout the centuries to follow.
Some members of the church of Pergamum were holding to false teaching.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
The church in Thyatira is also guilty of this:
20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
These churches have the ugly distinction of worshipping another, holding teaching contrary to what Jesus taught.
There’s an old song with lyrics fitting a church who does such things. It goes like this: “U, G, L, Y, you ain’t got no alibi, you ugly; hey, hey, you ugly.”
In all seriousness, this is a repulsive sin—to worship another, to believe the opposite of what Jesus taught, to sacrifice to idols, to bow yourself to something/someone who is not Jesus.
That’s ugly. Disgusting. Horrifying and all too common.
John mentions people who hold to the teaching of Balaam. You might remember the prophet Balaam from the Book of Numbers (Numbers 22-25). Balaam was called to curse Israel, but failed. He then got Moabite women to seduce the men of Israel.
What John says here is that there are Christians in Pergamum who are repeating the sins of Balaam. They are participating in idol worship, in the worship of false gods. They are sexually immoral, either literally or spiritually in their worship of another.
Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab during the time of Elijah the prophet. She was a great promoter of idol worship in Israel. John picks the name—Jezebel—to describe some woman who is encouraging Christians to eat food sacrificed to idols and participate in adultery or sexual immorality.
Jezebel and Balaam seem to be people within the churches, people who call themselves Christians. Can you imagine? Sadly, we probably can.
These “Christians” are probably encouraging other Christians to go ahead and eat meat offered to idols, or say “Caesar is Lord”, or offer incense to Caesar.
The Nicolaitans (mentioned in 2:6 and 2:15) were probably up to the same stuff Balaam and Jezebel were.
The church in Ephesus, Jesus is glad to announce, hate the practices of the Nicolaitans. Jesus also hates their practices.
It’s good to love what Jesus loves; equally so, it’s good to hate what Jesus hates; it’s good to be intolerant of what Jesus will not tolerate.
It’s not just bad, it’s ugly—following Balaam or Jezebel or the Nicolaitans—living according to their teaching instead of Jesus’ teaching, living in ways opposite of that commanded by the Lord.
>This is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the first century Christians.
And this is representative of all churches since.
Where do we see ourselves? What has your experience been with the church?
Have you seen the good? The bad? The ugly?
More than any of that, though, I pray you’ve focused on the deeper truth within the Church, this glorious and wonderful truth amid the bad and the ugly.
The Church is really, really messed-up,
And Still, Jesus Loves His Bride
And Still, Jesus Loves His Bride
Jesus is with His Church, dealing with her, calling her to repentance and deeper trust.
Jesus speaks to His Church; His patience knows no bounds.
Notice how Jesus introduces Himself to each of the churches:
Revelation 2:1 (NIV)
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
Revelation 2:8 (NIV)
These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.
Revelation 2:12 (NIV)
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
Revelation 2:18 (NIV)
These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
Revelation 3:1 (NIV)
These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
Revelation 3:7 (NIV)
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David.
Revelation 3:14 (NIV)
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
There is something entirely “other” about Jesus. He is in charge. He is before all things. He is the crucified and resurrected One. He speaks truth, sees through our facades, stands firm. He has the Church in the palm of His hand. He has conquered death. He is the Ruler of all things.
*This* Jesus is faithful and committed to His Bride, the Church. For all of her adultery and failure, Jesus remains true. He hasn’t left, nor will He.
Jesus will reward those who follow Him (2:7, 17). He promises to be with His people even as they suffer persecution (2:10). Jesus continues to call His Church to repentance (2:16, 22). He will give His people a new name (3:12).
Jesus stands at the door of the Church and knocks (3:20) and offers a relationship to His people. He LOVES His Church and continues to deal with them, regardless how ugly or bad or good they might be.
>No church is perfect. If you find the perfect church, you better leave before you screw it up.
No church is perfect, as the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3 illustrate for us. But the true church of Jesus Christ will overcome.
In each letter, Jesus closes by describing a heavenly reward for the one who overcomes. These promises are part of our new life with Jesus:
We will eat from the tree of life in paradise, wear the crown of life, remain untouched by the second death, receive a new name, be given the morning star, wear white robes, hear our name spoken by Jesus before the Father, gain a permanent place in the temple of God, and sit on Christ’s throne with Him.
Jesus loves His Church and gave up His life for her. He loves His Bride. And He will never leave or forsake her.
Ours is to love the church, warts and all. Jesus loves the church and calls His people to belong to a local body of believers—to commit to one another and stay through good times and bad. We learn to love the church more honestly, admitting her faults and recognizing what the church is.
It’s not always good. It’s not always easy. There are plenty of opportunities for the church to repent. We need to return to our first love. We need to hold fast to Jesus and His teaching.
And we need to understand when we fail—when, and not if—Jesus is there for us. He’s with us. He offers grace and mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus loves His bride, the Church. And so should we.