8 Lessons (of Many More) We Can Learn from the Seven Churches of Revelation 2-3

There are those who believe the seven churches of Revelation represent seven “church ages.” While I’ve considered this possibility,  I’m not convinced. I believe these seven literal churches represent the struggles and pitfalls churches continually face throughout the entire church age (singular) until the return of Christ. I think each of us would be wise to prayerfully and honestly read Revelation 2-3 and let the Holy Spirit reveal to us the unpleasant realities of our own hearts and the awful conditions of many of our churches. We’d be wiser still if we repent of all sin He reveals.

The words to the churches are instructions, warnings, and encouragement for us as much as they were to them. Of the seven churches, only two received complete commendation. Two received only rebuke, while the rest received both. Most of our churches fall into the latter groups. May we take Jesus’ words to heart.

  1. Jesus walks in our midst. This truth, if churches really believed and understood this, would challenge attitudes, thoughts, words, and behaviors. Jesus notices every detail going on in churches, whether it’s during services, meetings, or behind closed doors—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Behind the talk, the actions, and the motives, everything is perceived by His scrutinizing eye.
  2. Love is as important as sound doctrine (and vice versa). Which is more important, love or sound doctrine? The question is like asking which is more important, air or water? Neither is more important but both are vital. The church of Ephesus was commended by Christ for holding firmly to sound doctrine but sternly rebuked for losing love for Him. The church in Pergamum was commended for holding fast to His name but sternly rebuked for permitting false teachers and their teachings. For churches to be healthy and truly Christ-honoring, sound doctrine and fervent love for Christ. To surrender one is like giving up air or water—too long without either is fatal.
  3. Suffering does not equal God’s displeasure. The church in Smyrna was highly commended by Christ with no rebuke, although it had to endure tribulation, poverty, and intense suffering. This truth goes directly against the heresies of the modern “prosperity” gospel and teachings that God’s favor is evidenced by the comforts of this world.
  4. Jesus will judge idolatry and sexual immorality if not repented of. Jesus doesn’t turn a blind eye to idolatry, immorality, perversions, or the seduction of His people into such practices. The churches in Pergamum and Thyatira were severely rebuked by Christ for permitting idolatrous practices and sexual immorality. Jesus commands repentance and threatens severe consequences for those who refuse to repent. This should sound an alarm to churches today who permit idolatrous teachings (e.g., yoga, goddess worship, pluralism, etc.) and sexual immorality of various kinds or who turn a blind eye to sexual abuse. Jesus’ command of repentance is just as valid today as back then.
  5. Jesus searches the mind and heart, not just actions. To the church in Thyatira, “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire” (2:18), declares, “All the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (2:23). Jesus not only sees the works and actions, but He also sees the motives, lusts, and ambitions behind all the pretensions. He threatens tribulation and commands repentance. For all who refuse to repent, the consequences only become more severe. Jesus is not speaking to the world here, but to His church. 
  6. Having a reputation of being alive does not mean God is pleased. Many churches appear to be thriving today. They have large numbers of people and programs. From all accounts they appear alive and hopping. The church in Sardis had a reputation of being alive, but Jesus says it was dead and lethargic. Seeing is not always believing, and perception doesn’t necessarily capture reality.
  7. Jesus honors love and faithfulness to Him. Of the seven churches, only two received only commendation. All the others received rebukes of some kind. So Jesus had some grievance against over 70% of the churches. Very few churches possess the caliber of faith and loving devotion as Smyrna and Philadelphia. Although such churches usually face trials of different kinds, Jesus promises His faithfulness and reward for these churches.
  8. Our perception can differ greatly from God’s. Just as suffering doesn’t necessarily mean God’s distance or displeasure, affluence doesn’t necessarily mean God is pleased. The church in Laodicea was rich and prosperous, but Jesus rebuked it, saying, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). Churches can be presumptuous, thinking God is pleased because attendance has grown and the cashflow is coming in. Ironically, these can be evidence that things are severely wrong.

May we, today, have an ear, and hear what the Spirit says to the churches today.

8 Truths About Biblical Faith

Faith is a vital element in Christian life. In fact, without faith there is no salvation or pleasing God. The following are eight crucial elements  of biblical faith.

  1. Faith is the conviction of the unseen reality. Biblical Christian faith (belief) is neither abstract nor simply intellectual consent. The writer of Hebrews notes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). He then goes on to explain by using an example, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (11:3). Faith is like a mortar, binding and holding together what God reveals He has done, who He is, what He is like, what He is doing, and what He is going to do. Although our physical eyes cannot see the reality, faith has “eyes” that see what God reveals, and this becomes a conviction which leads action.
  2. Faith is not passive. God is not interested in people’s rumps sitting in pews, mindlessly and heartlessly singing songs and rushing about in religious activities. Genuine faith is vital, and it consists of pursuing and trusting God. The writer of Hebrews notes, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). Apart from genuine faith, it is impossible to please God, despite and religious or good works. Genuine faith is a response to God and His Word, and actively pursues Christ in trust and obedience.
  3. Faith trusts God and what He says. We are told that Abraham believed God and He “counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). God had told Abraham that he and his wife would have a biological son in their elderly age, and this son would be Abraham’s heir. The real test of his faith came later, after Isaac his son was born. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Some people get stuck on God’s command, but He wasn’t going to allow Abraham to kill his son. However, Hebrews reveals the depth of Abraham’s faith: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:17-19). Genuine faith believes God, whatever He says. What He reveals in the Scriptures is who He is, what He is like, what He has done, and what He’s going to do—even when one does not fully comprehend (which shouldn’t surprise anyone, since we are finite and God is infinite. As God says to us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).
  4. Faith responds approximately to God’s instructions and warnings. Genuine faith responds appropriately to God’s character and ways, to His love and holiness, His promises of blessings and warnings of judgment, to His words of comfort and His words of rebuke. The writer of Hebrews writes of Noah, “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (11:7). Isaiah, when he got a glimpse of the glory of God, cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). And Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:23-24). 
  5. Faith is anchored on Jesus Christ. Faith is centered around, and anchored on, the person and work of Jesus Christ. One’s salvation and acceptance is because of Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 5:9). The Christian’s identity is rooted in Him (Eph. 1 and 2). One’s good, acceptable works are wrought through Him (John 15:4-5). And His teachings are what give a person a solid foundation (Matt. 7:24-27). If one separates faith from Christ, he doesn’t have Christian faith. Jesus Christ is the very focal point of the Scriptures. Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). “No one who denies the Son has the Father” (1 John 2:23).
  6. Faith is accompanied by good works. A person is saved entirely by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), and not a single work or effort contributes to this. However, genuine faith will grow in love and kindness, which will result in good works that are both acceptable to, and wrought by, God. An unloving Christian is a contradiction in terms. When a person is truly by the grace of God, this grace will manifest itself in his life in various ways, albeit not perfectly. James writes explicitly, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good[b] is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-17). Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). And Jesus our Lord says, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Good works, then, do not contribute to one’s salvation; however, the evidence of true salvation includes good works and acts of mercy.
  7. Faith looks and sees beyond the temporal. The writer of Hebrews observed that God called out men like Abraham, making wonderful promises. They did not witness all the promises come to fruition while on earth, for the promises were not for this temporal world only.  “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (11:8-10). Genuine faith holds loosely to this world and fixes its gaze on the kingdom of Heaven.
  8. Faith endures hardships. One of the great perversions in American Christendom is the popular teaching of faith being a means of attaining wealth, having a “good” life, and being free of problems. Such teachings are a gross departure from authentic Christianity. The prophets, apostles, and Jesus were persecuted. Many of them were not affluent. The writer of Hebrews notes that while many persons of faith witnessed mighty workings of God, some “were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earthAnd all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (11:35-38). Paul tells us, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:12-13). And Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.10).

Faith is far more than a religious word. It is an anchored and active lifestyle fixed and founded entirely on Jesus Christ. To get this wrong is to have the whole structure collapse  (1 Cor. 15).

Encourage Your Pastor

One of the sad (but true) jokes in churches is that many families will have roasted pastor for dinner after Sunday’s service. However, the pastor who is genuinely called by God and is trying to lead a congregation in the ways of God has a tremendous responsibility. Furthermore, he does so many things behind the scenes ministering to others most are unaware of. Contrary to popular belief, pastors do far more than “just prepare for sermons and preach.” They serve as counselors and comforters, and many are on-call 24/7.

Pastors are not perfect (although they are to be godly). They have feelings and passions. They experience fear, sadness, discouragement, and anger. Many are husbands and fathers trying to be good In these roles (these are difficult for them too), and often people expect their families to be picture perfect. Dysfunction brings their calling, character, and credibility into question.

Pastors must deal with conviction and accountability to God for how they behave and handle the Word of God. They must deal with their own consciences making them aware of their failures and inadequacies. And pastors have “a target on their backs,”  more so than the average Christian, because if Satan can influence them to fall into gross sin and scandalous activities, then congregations can be divided, confounded, and even faith being shipwrecked of some.

I have read of the following statistics:

  • 97% of pastors have been betrayed, falsely accused, or hurt by their trusted friends.
  • 70% of pastors struggle with depression.
  • 1500 pastors quit each month.
  • 10% will retire as pastors.
  • 80% of pastors feel discouraged.
  • 94% of pastor’s families feel the pressure of ministry.
  • 78% of pastors have no close friends.
  • 90% of pastors report to working 55-75 hours per week.

The primary tasks of a pastor is studying/teaching God’s Word and devoting himself to earnest prayer. Christians can say they “love God’s Word,” but pastors make a lot of people mad when they do truly preach God’s Word!

If you have a godly (albeit imperfect) pastor who strives to be faithful to Jesus Christ, His Word, and the Great Commission; and if he seeks to minister to the congregation and is burdened for the souls of people, then you are truly blessed. The Bible says this of such individuals:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. ~ 1 Timothy 5:17 (ESV)

And,

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. ~ Hebrews 13:17

Do you give honor—even double honor—to your pastor? Or do you nit pick his flaws, give him grief because he did not call you on your birthday, and roast him because he preached against your beloved pet sin(s)? If the latter, how is this of any benefit to you? What gain is there in wounding and making the work difficult of one who loves you? Sadly, often pastors pour themselves out (sometimes at the expense of their families) only to meet with continual resistance, roasting, and betrayal from congregants. 

Do you pray for your pastor’s well being? Have you encouraged your pastor (and his family) lately? A gift, a note of appreciation, and the like could be of great encouragement to him. It might even be that needed spark to help him keep from giving up. Encourage your pastor. He experiences the stresses of life and loss, just as you, all the while putting these aside ad he tried to minister to others. The weight and burdens he carries with him you will never understand. He needs your prayers and encouragement more than you can ever know.

“Liking” Jesus but Not the Church

There is a book entitled, They Like Jesus but Not the Church, (note: I do not endorse the author or the movement he is part of). Certainly the church is not perfect—far from! However, is the author correct? Jesus is not at all concerned with whether people like him or not. We are told in the Gospels:

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. ~ John 2:24-25 (ESV)

People are fickle. They can like a person one day and betray him the next. Or they can be infatuated for a season only to have the infatuation replaced by the coldness of winter.

What does Jesus say about people’s thoughts about Him and His people? He tells His disciples (men who struggled with ambition, pride, anger, prejudice, fear, etc.),

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. ~ John 15:18

Elsewhere, He explains:

The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. ~ John 7:7

A common complaint is churches are “filled with hypocrites.” As opposed to what? Politics? Hollywood? Realms where people are applauded and idolized—in spite of blatant hypocrisy! Furthermore, while hypocrites exist in many churches, there are also many wonderful, godly, honest, humble, and compassionate persons (but no one wants to give any credit to these). Yet, it is these that are just as much irritants to those who supposedly “like” Jesus. Notice what Jesus said, the world hated Him before it ever hated His people. And why does it hate Him? Because He testifies about it and its evil practices.

The apostle John declares,

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. ~ 1 John 4:19-21

And Jesus says plainly,

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me…. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. ~ John 14:23-24; 15:12

Jesus’ call has never been to follow His followers. Rather, He bids each of us to pick up our cross and follow Him. For someone to say he “likes Jesus but not the church” is merely a smokescreen concealing rebellion against the very One he claims to “like.”

When the Church Neglects Her Map and Compass

Imagine traveling across a continent, desert, or ocean with a destination in mind, yet neglecting your map and compass. No doubt you would get lost and disoriented. Now, consider what would happen if you began following a group of people who were going in an altogether different direction than you had in mind. What would happen? You would eventually arrive at an altogether different destination than you had anticipated.

Without being critical, this is precisely what is happening with many churches and professing Christians today. God has given and preserved for His people His written Word and Holy Spirit, but too often these are being neglected, even scorned.

The prophet Isaiah prophesies the Lord’s disciples will complete the sacred writings, and these (with the help of the Holy Spirit) will guide people to truth.

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples …. To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. ~ Isaiah 8:16, 20 (ESV)

Psalm 119 is a celebration of God’s Word, throughout which the psalmist notes that the Scriptures are a light and safeguard to him.

The apostle Paul declares,

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. ~ 2 Timothy 3:16

And the apostle Peter explains,

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ~ 2 Peter 1:19-21

And finally, Jesus repeatedly declared His confidence in the absolute truth and trustworthiness of God’s written Word, copied and passed down from generation to generation.

For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. ~ Matthew 11:13

Then [Jesus] said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” ~ Luke 24:44

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. ~ John 16:13

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. ~ John 17:17

The prophets, apostles, and the Lord Jesus Christ all testify to the Scriptures being the Word of God; thus, being absolute truth and completely trustworthy. Yet, how is it so many preachers and teachers are questioning as to whether or not the Scriptures can be trusted? How can so many mask unbelief with false humility, saying we cannot be certain of anything? How can many say Jesus is but one of many ways to heaven, when Jesus declares Himself to be the only way (see John 14:6)? 

Still, how can some who profess to be “Christian” go to conferences to worship such false goddesses and/or to follow along with the world and its acceptance of practices, behaviors, lifestyles, and philosophies? The Scriptures declare, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). In Christ, the two are not separated; therefore, grace (which is so often emphasized) is never to be disconnected from the truth.

The Scriptures are to be the map for the church, and the Holy Spirit serves as our Compass, if you will. Nevertheless, many churches and professing Christians dismiss these in order to follow their own deceptive hearts (See Jer. 17:9; Pro. 14:12), feelings, and the ebb and flow of the world and its various religions and philosophies. So then, how can they reach their desired, and assumed, destination (heaven) if they disregard the map and compass? 

I know of pastors and theologians who say, “Christianity, and its theology, must change.” Each of them have these in common: 1) They disregard clear teachings of the Bible, and 2) They mean that Christianity must become more “relevant”—that is, to become more like the world in its supposed “progression,” “inclusion,” etc. The overarching consequence is while trying to be “relevant,” churches are becoming irrelevant. By disregarding the map and compass, the church is losing her moral bearings, and has become increasingly ineffective and powerless.

Christianity does not need to change, let alone become something it was never intended to be. Rather, churches and the people of God must regain dependence on the divinely given Scriptures and Holy Spirit. We must accept as truth what God has revealed, regardless of our initial thoughts or feelings. As Paul declares, “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Rom. 3:4). We must accept what God calls sin, and we need to yield to what He deems as holy or profane, acceptable or unacceptable. We need to follow His commands and instructions, instead of trusting our own plans and agendas.

The church must not only understand, but also accept, the fact that this has never been well received by popular culture. Christians have always been persecuted for their rejection of godless behaviors and ideologies. The church has always faced conflict for her believe in an exclusive God and the means to come to Him. It does no one any good to compromise truth in order to make it more “attractive” and “palatable.” While the truth should always be proclaimed in love (see Eph. 4:15), if it is twisted or distorted it ceases to be what God has intended. In other words, distorted “truth” ceases to be truth. Apart from truth there can be no true salvation, no true redemption.

Thus, when the church neglects her map and compass, she becomes disoriented and lost. When she begins following the lost world which is traveling toward its own destruction, where does she then think will be her destination?

For further consideration as to what it means to be a Christian and a part of God’s holy people, I invite you to read my book, A Royal Priesthood: The Christian’s Privilege and Responsibility – Studies in Practical Theology: