In our current reality, and the unraveling that we are seeing take place specifically in American society and culture, there are many voices that are vying for our attention. Sadly, it seems that many who profess to be followers of Jesus are more interested in hearing what culture is speaking, rather than hearing what the Spirit of God is saying. For those to seek to argue otherwise, I would suggest we turn to Scripture and measure where we are, with where Jesus says we should be. I once heard a theologian say, “Since when did an ounce of salt not influence a pound of meat?” His point was that the Church, made up of we who are likened to salt, in fulfilling her calling, always influences culture in a way that results in tangible and irrefutable ways. The New Testament church in Acts is a great example.
Seven times, as He speaks to the seven churches, Jesus gives this admonishment: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” I think what Jesus is saying is that we need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, which means what he is saying to those who are part of the body of Christ.
But how well are we listening? Or, have we tuned Him out completely? It would be interesting, and very revealing, if like our phones, we had “screen time” report on the time we spent reading God’s word, and actively listening to what the Spirit is saying. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to think that the amount of time spent scrolling through and listening to the “voices” on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Snapchat, YouTube, Tinder (you get the point), versus the time spent hearing from and listening to the Spirit of God, would reveal a huge disparity and be greatly disproportionate. The truth is we don’t need a screen time monitor to reveal who or what we are listening to the most; our lives bear that out.
At the end of Revelation 1, and in chapters 2-3, Jesus tells John, who had been exiled by the Roman government because of his boldness in speaking the truth of Scriptures, and his refusal to be silent regarding his testimony of Jesus, to “Write therefore the things you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Revelation 1:19
In other words, it is gracious that Jesus would examine the Church and show us where we are missing it, so that we might repent and experience the blessing that comes with following after His ways.
As the Church, we have found ourselves drifting like a ship that has been blown off course by the hurricane force winds of culture, and we’ve lost our bearing. Instead of maintaining a heading that points us to Jesus, we’ve become easily tossed by every wind of doctrine; swept away by every cultural current; and are finding ourselves being dragged under by the unseen undertow of our pride.
We are no different than many of these churches mentioned in Revelation–we have abandoned Jesus as our first love; we have tolerated false teaching; we have pursued the fleshly desires of this world, and not pursued holiness; we have given the appearance that we are alive, but in reality are dead; and we have become self-sufficient, and self-reliant, with a lukewarm faith. And so now, Jesus is starting to clean His house. The apostle Peter writes, “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” 1 Peter 4:17
We would do well, as the Church, to listen to the voice of God’s Spirit. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Revelation 2:11
We would do well to listen to His Spirit because . . .
He is the groom who deeply loves His bride. He has paid the bride-price by laying down His life for His bride, the Church. And soon, He will come for His bride to take her to be with Him forever. That is the goodness and greatness of the gospel. And because Jesus is in the midst of His Church, even though many do not seek after or acknowledge His presence, He “walks among the seven golden lamp stands.” Revelation 2:1b.
Why would He refer to the church as golden lamp stands? That’s an interesting choice of words unless you realize the purpose of the Church: to be light in the midst of a dark world. Jesus reminded us of this in the gospel of Matthew 5:14-16, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 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.”
In the Old Testament, God instructed Moses to build the Tabernacle, the place where God would choose to dwell in the midst of His people. As they would journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Tabernacle would go with them and when they would set up camp, the Tabernacle would be at the center; their tents surrounding it, and facing the tent of meeting, so as to look to their King.
Inside the tabernacle proper, just to the left as you entered, would be the golden lamp stand that was tended to by the priests so that it might burn continually and give light. It was strategically placed and constructed in such a way so as to give light throughout the tabernacle. So is the purpose of the church; strategically placed so as to be an effective witness of Christ.
In the same way, the body of Christ has been strategically positioned in this world to make much of Jesus, but where is the witness? We can get upset with the world saying that we are non-essential, but they certainly didn’t make us that way. As the church, we have been lulled into sleep because we have desired comfort of over God’s presence, and as a result we have lost our sense of purpose. We have abandoned our first love.
Over 60 years ago, Thomas Wedel wrote a parable about a life-saving station:
“On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur, there was once a little life-saving station. The building was primitive, and there was just one boat, but the members of the life-saving station were committed and kept a constant watch over the sea. When a ship went down, they unselfishly went out day or night to save the lost. Because so many lives were saved by that station, it became famous.
Consequently, many people wanted to be associated with the station to give their time, talent, and money to support its important work. New boats were bought, new crews were recruited, a formal training session was offered. As the membership in the life-saving station grew, some of the members became unhappy that the building was so primitive and that the equipment was so outdated. They wanted a better place to welcome the survivors pulled from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged and newly decorated building.
Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members. They met regularly and when they did, it was apparent how they loved one another. They greeted each other, hugged each other, and shared with one another the events that had been going on in their lives. But fewer members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions; so they hired lifeboat crews to do this for them.
About this time, a large ship was wrecked off of the coast, and the hired crews brought into the life-saving station boatloads of cold, wet, dirty, sick, and half-drowned people. Some of them had black skin, and some had yellow skin. Some could speak English well, and some could hardly speak it at all. Some were first-class cabin passengers of the ship, and some were the deck hands.
The beautiful meeting place became a place of chaos. The plush carpets got dirty. Some of the exquisite furniture got scratched. So the property committee immediately had a shower built outside the house where the victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting there was rift in the membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s life-saving activities, for they were unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal fellowship of the members. Other members insisted that life-saving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all those various kinds of people who would be shipwrecked, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. And do you know what? That is what they did.
As the years passed, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a place to meet regularly for fellowship, for committee meetings, and for special training sessions about their mission, but few went out to the drowning people. The drowning people were no longer welcomed in that new life-saving station. So another life-saving station was founded further down the coast. History continued to repeat itself. And if you visit that seacoast today, you will find a number of adequate meeting places with ample parking and plush carpeting. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.”
So is the modern Church in the West. I’m curious, though, as to how many towns and cities have noticed the absence of the Church in these days. Or, could it be that we have been noticeably absent for some time now that no one has noticed the difference? If your church no longer existed in its present location, form, and function, would your city or town notice the difference? These are fair questions that I fear, when honestly assessed and answered, would lead to a sobering and convicting conclusion.
As the body of Christ, we are the primary means through which He seeks to reach the world. It was His commission to the believers that we would, as we journey in this life, make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe and keep all of God’s ways. Since we are a data and results driven world, a look at the numbers and the lack of transformation reveal that we aren’t taking very seriously the purpose for why we exist as the Church.
It certainly isn’t easy to see, or hear, but the issue will never be addressed until we honestly listen to the Spirit, who examines the heart and mind, and are willing to confess the sin of our apathy and disobedience.
We would do well to listen because . . .
With each of the seven churches, Jesus begins His spiritual assessment by saying, “I know . . .”
He sees through the facade of those who worship with their lips, yet their hearts are far from him. He knows. You can’t fake Him out with a spiritual “Jesus-juke.” He knows all the religious moves that are merely for show and not sincere. As a matter of fact, Jesus said to the religious in Matthew 15:8-9, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Perhaps a good question to ask God right now is, “God, is this me?” And then asking, “God is this us?”
In Amos 5, speaking to Israel who chased after false gods and rejected the ways of God, God said through the prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer Me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.” Amos 5:21-23
It is easy to discount this by saying, “That was Israel!” But we are no different. Our idols may not look like golden calves, figurines or statues, but are much more subtle yet just as destructive and dishonoring. Anything we have exalted above Christ is an idol. During this pandemic, God has been at work dismantling the idols of our culture: money, sports, and religion just to name a few. But when it comes to religion, he has cleared the stage . . . literally.
It should be crushing to us that our gatherings and offerings have become unacceptable to God and nothing but noise to the One who is worthy of true worship. Maybe God isn’t as impressed with our performance as we are. Maybe God isn’t as pleased with our image-obsessed appearance as we are. Maybe God isn’t into playing Church as we are. It is clear there is something more He desires, and we would do well to hear what the Spirit of God is saying to the Church.
There is a great song written by Ross King called “Clear the Stage,” covered by Jimmy Needham in 2012, that is a lyrical picture of what needed to happen. You can check out the song here: https://youtu.be/p-uGsUu_olM
What we have failed to do, God has done. He has disrupted our “worship” so that we might return to what true worship is, in spirit and in truth.
But He also knows and sees the sincerity of worship, and the authenticity of those who truly seek after Him. We see that in the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia in Revelation 2-3. Out of all the seven churches, these are the only two Jesus commends; whose sincerity of faith and worship is lived out and, as a result, suffers at the hands of those who oppose them, even those who would profess to be the people of God.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love, He predestined us for adoption as sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, according to the promise of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved.” Ephesians 1:3-6
A.W. Pink, years ago, wrote regarding the Church, and Christ’s view of her, “It pleased the Father to choose for his Son, as God-man, the Church, to be not only his Body, but also his Bride, who was to receive from him and share with him his honors, glories, and privileges. Having chosen the Church in Christ, the Father set her before him in the glass of his decrees, according to the uttermost purpose of his love and grace toward her, causing her to shine with excelling brightness and loveliness in the view of his Son, giving him to see how high she was in the Father’s estimation, and presenting her to Christ as his choicest gift to him.” (Spiritual Union and Communion, 58)
To that end, God is sanctifying and purifying His bride, the Church, through “the washing of water with His word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:26-27
It is in the testing of trials that the precious metal of genuine faith glows, and that which is less than authentic faith is consumed like dry wood. Persevering faith is the evidence of saving faith. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus said to his disciples, who asked Him what the sign of His coming and the close of the age would be, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” Matthew 24:9-13 And then in Matthew 10, Jesus says, “ . . . and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Scripture tells us that the closer we get to the return of Christ, the more hostile this world will become toward followers of Christ and the things of Christ. And because of this, there will be a separating of those who are genuinely followers of Jesus and those who are followers in name only. Jesus spoke of this when He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21-23
Jesus is refining His Church. When there is a refining, there is always a revealing. When a goldsmith purifies gold, the heat of the flame brings the impurities of the dross to the surface. He will continue to scrape off the dross so that the gold might be without impurities. It is a pure and precious metal.
The flames of Covid-19, God has used to reveal the paralyzing fear prevalent in the lives of those who do not follow and those who do follow Christ. For those who are unbelievers, it is understandable that fear of sickness that could lead to death would be concerning and all-consuming. For a believer, if we truly believe what Paul said to the church in Philippi, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” then what is there to fear? I’ve often heard people joke that there ready for heaven, but not ready to get on the train yet. Why? If we believe in the hope of the gospel, the sovereignty of God, and the greatness of His promise that to be absent from the body is to be present with Him, then why would we want to stay one second longer than what He has appointed for us? How can we say we would die for our faith, when we run scared from a virus?
Fear has so gripped our churches that we have hidden behind the “mandates” of governing officials, who admittedly are conflicted in their data and recommendations, and willingly gone along with keeping our churches closed. As a pastor, what seems concerning to me, are the reasons that have been given for suspending worship gatherings. I’m not suggesting that larger worship gatherings, as we clearly see in Acts and throughout the New Testament, are the most effective way for carrying out the purpose of the Church, but I do believe it is necessary and vital. As long as we are able to meet and gather together, for the purpose of encouraging one another, building up one another, equipping one another, praying with one another, and celebrating with one another, then we should do so. There’s no reason to not gather with the body of Christ. If you are trusting the “experts” (and I say that loosely), then wear a mask, social distance, and meet with your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you don’t trust the “experts,” wear a mask any way, and see it as the chain you’re willing to wear for the cause of Christ and meeting together with your brothers and sisters in Christ. And for those who truly are sick, or have compromised immune systems, stay home and let the Church minister to you.
It’s not only fear, it is apathy as well. There isn’t a mask big enough to cover up the apathy that has taken root in the soil of caution. I’m curious as to how many people who haven’t come back to church for reasons that it isn’t “safe” or it’s too risky, even with a mask, are finding the courage to go to Walmart, Kroger, Lowe’s, or any other crowded marketplace. I know, I can hear the pushback, “But those are essential.” Enough said. I’ll let that thought linger.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with an individual who owned up to the reason why he and his family weren’t going to their church that had resumed gathering together. His reason, “We’ve grown use to staying in our pajamas and watching it whenever, but mostly are just going to the lake.” At least he was honest.
When we allow God to refine us, He consumes our fear and apathy and ignites in us an unquenchable desire to be in His presence, and among other followers of Jesus. Once again, take a look at the church in Acts and the context of their day.
It is a beautiful thing for God to set His Church ablaze. The world desperately needs to see the light of His glory and His gospel, and the timing couldn’t be better. The stage is set for God to revive His Church, but are we ready and willing to let Him trim the smoldering wick of our witness and faith so that the flame of revival spreads like wildfire? I pray so.
Spend some time asking God to examine your heart and your mind, and listen to what the Spirit is saying. (Psalm 139:23-24)
Confess and repent of what God has shown you that grieves Him, and the sin that is affecting your relationship with Him.
Where has God strategically placed you to let the light of Christ shine, and in what ways are you being effective in your witness of Christ?