The Dangerous Church – Lenten Season 2023
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.
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. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 3:1-6 NIV).
Revelations – Day 7 “Letter to Sardis – The Charismatic Church”
The acropolis stood like a citadel on the hill, impregnable and proud as the center of power in the Lydian kingdom of Croesus. The city of Sardis was a prosperous one, full of trade and industry, and the greatest Persian city in the region. It stood at the western end of the trade route, bringing goods from Susa to Sardis and back again. The acropolis was only accessible by means of a narrow approach from the south and had never been taken by assault.
But everyone knew the story of the downfall of the kingdom of Croesus. The invaders had come in the dead of night, and no one even knew that they were coming. Soldiers climbed the narrow path to the acropolis, killing the few guards that protected the entrance and gained entry to the seat of government. The great city fell with almost no resistance at all. Now it was a Roman city and the imperial cult had been grafted into the local religion.
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Rev. 3:1 NIV).
The letter to Sardis is short and to the point. There isn’t much to say. There didn’t seem to be much to talk about. No persecution. No heresy. No outward signs to show that they were under any kind of attack from Satan. Nothing. They were dead and inoffensive and harmless. They were certainly not a dangerous church to anyone but themselves.
This is probably why Jesus gives them a description of himself as the one holding “the seven spirits of God” in his hand. It would only be by the fullness of the life-giving Spirit that this church can be made alive again.
“I know your deeds: you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it and repent” (Rev. 3: 1b,2,3a NIV).
I remember sitting in a church service not so long ago, visiting a local church that we knew well. It was a fairly traditional church with a rigid liturgy and a closed-minded leadership. Not to overstate the case, there had been a time of renewal a number of years back, but it mostly died out due to neglect and opposition by the leaders of the church. One or two churches had become charismatic and were involved in good ministry. A few of the pastors had gotten together and were holding monthly services in each church to see if they could liven things up a little.
We watched as lackluster songs were sung, passion-less prayers were made and the people unmoved sat in their pews. And it wasn’t because the people were not happy with the direction of the service. They did the best they could. But it was painful to watch. While we walked home, my wife asked me what I thought about the service. I said, “These leaders have a reputation for being alive, but they are dead.” Enough said.
We could see what was happening because we knew the people. We understood what was happening in the pews, in the back rooms, and in the leadership discussions. Relationships were broken. These people over there, three rows back, didn’t want their in-laws to come over to their house even though they attended the same church and sat on the other side of the sanctuary. Those people were at odds with others in the church. Relationships were encrusted with resentment and rancor built up over years of trying to make something happen in a church that seemed to go nowhere.
And we haven’t even talked about corporate sin yet. The acceptance of homosexuality in the leadership. The refusal to change anything when it came to the liturgy. The spirit of politics that stopped every serious attempt to bring life into the lives and ministries of the people. Rather than upbeat songs with hands raised, or passionate sermons that fall on deaf ears, what the church needed was a leadership that would repent and call the people to repentance.
The forms of charisma, the openness to the spiritual gifts, and the willingness to talk the talk of a Spirit-filled church are simply not enough. There is no anointing without spiritual unity (Ps. 133:1 NIV) and no spiritual unity without confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
One of the most dangerous verses in the Bible comes from Matthew 7: 21-23 where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”
If that doesn’t put a rock in the pit of your stomach, I don’t know what would.
I am not even at the point in my ministry where I can do these miraculous signs which, I assume, come from God. A successful ministry is apparently not the same as having a true, saving relationship with the Savior. Think of Judas who participated in everything that the other disciples did. No doubt he went out with them two-by-two and preached the coming of the kingdom with signs and wonders following. But no one thinks of themselves as a Judas, do they?
Jesus had just finished warning his followers of “false prophets” who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15 NIV). How will we recognize them? “By their fruit, you will recognize them,” Jesus says. So, if they prophesy, cast out demons, and perform many miracles, that is the fruit that Jesus is talking about? Not at all.
Ok, now I’m confused.
Jesus had made it clear that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matt. 7:14 NIV). This is not just about finding the formula for salvation but rather the path to life. To seek life assumes that you are presently dead. To find life is difficult and perhaps even dangerous and only a few find it. Life is also set over against “the road to destruction” which has overtones of eternal death versus eternal life.
These are serious matters and just being in the church, or claiming to be a follower of Christ is not enough. It is not enough to have good theology, to show up regularly, be involved in church, and even give a tithe to the ministry.
In fact, becoming a pastor, an evangelist or a missionary is also not enough. There are a lot of weird reasons why people get married and even more strange reasons why people get involved in full-time ministry. This is not about persecution from without but rather spiritual rot from within. In our day and age, we should also point out that being a charismatic Christian is no guarantee either. Apparently, you can prophesy and cast out demons and even do miracles and Jesus may end up calling you an “evildoer.”
Take a deep breath. This is serious stuff.
Jesus isn’t done yet. He needs to clarify what he means by “fruit” that is recognizable as coming from a heart that is alive to God and dead to sin. “Therefore,” he says in the final section of his sermon. Now we are getting to the point of it all. “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundations on the rock” (Matt. 7:24,25 NIV).
Putting the words of Jesus into practice seems to be the fruit that Jesus is talking about. That makes sense. The thing to remember is that the Sermon on the Mount was not a handbook on ministry. Jesus didn’t outline the steps needed to cast out demons. He wasn’t interested in teaching anyone the special sauce needed to perform miracles.
What did he talk about? Forgiveness, love for your enemies, giving to the needy, prayer and fasting, worry, judging others, making oaths, salt and light, and living a life of blessing in reconciliation with God and others.
Christianity is about relationships pure and simple. It is about the power of the cross to heal relationships that most people have given up on. All of us arrive at old age with a bunch of broken relationships in our wake. Relationships that we have no idea of how to heal, how to resolve, how to reconcile. No one on their deathbed wishes that they had worked harder, made more money, or accomplished more things.
We all lie there with regret about the relationships that remain broken and defeated and wish with all of our hearts that we could see our loved ones again to say we are sorry for whatever it was that set us on those separate paths.
The power to heal relationships. First with God and then with others but only through the power of the cross. The way of the cross is not easy. The way to life is narrow and difficult, some would say even dangerous. It begins with the humility of confession and the faith walk of repentance. There is power in a forgiveness rooted in the cross but not a worldly forgiveness that simply forgets the offense as if it never happened just so you can move on. True reconciliation empowers your prayers and brings anointing to your ministry.
I remember the story of two farmers who were brothers, but they hadn’t talked to each other for forty years because of some offense taken and given when they were young men. They were good church-going folk and found themselves listening to a visiting evangelist one Sunday morning talking about the power of reconciliation.
One of the brothers sat on one side of the church and the other on the far side of the sanctuary. What they hadn’t counted on was the power of “the seven spirits” Jesus held in his hand. For some strange reason, one of the men got up in the middle of the sermon and marched over to his brother with a strange look in his eye, knelt down in front of him, and asked him for his forgiveness. And in tears, it was given with hugs following.
A touching story, no doubt, but also a powerful one because in the weeks and months to come the story of these two farmers who were once dead but now alive, spread through the churches, and a revival was born. It is ever so with the power of the cross. All of the miracles in the world, all of the prophesy, knowledge, good theology, and all of the casting out of demons will not change the reality of your relationships. Your ministry may be anointed by God and not be an overflow of your relationship with Him. You may simply be a means to an end in the spreading of the gospel, like Balaam’s donkey, and nothing more.
The fruit is relational, and God prioritizes that relationship over a successful ministry every time. And we should as well. And how do we know that we have our priorities straight, that we have built that relational foundation in Christ effectively? Because when “the rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house,” the house (your life in relationship to God through Christ) did not fall down because “it had its foundation on the rock.” And Jesus isn’t just talking about the difficulties of life but about the real potential for persecution and suffering and death.
This wasn’t just a pleasant talk in the sun on a hillside in Galilee, it was a call to arms to enter the kingdom of God and to be used by God as his “living martyrs” as he redeems mankind for himself. To follow Christ was to follow him in his suffering and death even though that would be revealed later. For now, everyone who sat there listening knew that the Romans could show up at any time and make things very difficult for them. They had crucified the followers of other Messiahs without hesitation in the past (Acts 5:36,37 NIV).
So, the test of our faith is what happens when difficulties come our way, when persecution and suffering and the possibility of death stares us in the face. That is what Jesus is concerned about in the church at Sardis. He is getting his people ready for a great opportunity to witness to the power of the gospel. This is no time to be playing church, even if you think you have a successful ministry.
You may look good on the outside. Your services are full. Hands are raised. The worship music is truly moving. But you are dead. There is no confession of sin. No repentance. No cross-based forgiveness. No focus on the Ministry of Reconciliation. After all, that is a messy business. Dealing with people’s failings, weaknesses, pride, and sin is not much fun. Unless you have experienced and believe in the power of the cross to heal these people, you will generally ignore them and focus on the optics of the church instead.
Jesus says to the church in Sardis, “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Yes, you are doing the basics and doing them well, but the work is not “complete.” You are missing the most important ingredients.
How many of our churches need to hear this call of Christ to come to completeness by focusing on the ministry of reconciliation through the way of the cross? It isn’t enough to sing songs and preach sermons and take care of the business of the church. Even if we do it with charismatic enthusiasm. It’s time to go back to the beginning and start over with our walk with Christ.
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard. Obey it and repent.” It isn’t impossible. It isn’t hard to understand. But it is not something that you can do without the help of “the seven spirits” in his hands.
“But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Rev. 3:3b NIV).
And everybody knew what that meant. Jesus spoke of it many times in the gospels. They had all heard the stories of the bridesmaids with their lamps waiting for the bridegroom. They all knew that Jesus would come back as a “thief in the night” (Matt. 24:43 NIV). But what did that really mean? Did it only refer to the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, at the end of time? Or did it also refer to our own personal Parousia when Christ would come for us at the moment of our death?
Most people believe that it is the first when Jesus said it in the gospels but the second when he talks about it here in the book of Revelations. And that makes sense because this coming is dependent on the church’s willingness to repent.
This reminds us of the warning Jesus gave his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to “build your house” or your relationship with Christ now while you can because a time will come when the storms of life will show up and your faith will be tested and your great opportunity to witness will be upon you. In the case of the church in Sardis, at least, it could very possibly end in death for some of them.
So, the warning here is that persecution and suffering and death would still come, whether they were ready or not, like a thief in the night. And no one missed the allusion to the history of Sardis when the invaders were able to defeat them simply by showing up at an unexpected hour when the people were not ready.
And the city was defeated with hardly a show of resistance. May that not be so in the church, neither as individuals nor as a community. We must be ready. We must “strengthen what remains and is about to die” and obey the original message that we “received and heard” when we first became Christians.
For those in the church that I visited, I would say that they need to go back to their time of renewal and capture once again that same spiritual fervor when relationships were the lifeblood of their ministry, where the humility of confession was the norm, when reconciliation was the point of everything in the church and the songs, the prayers, the sermons were an overflow of that spiritual fervor.
“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” (Rev. 3:4 NIV).
Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “Strengthen what remains and is about to die?” Was he talking about those “few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes?” From experience, I can tell you that the few who are still focused on the ministry of reconciliation are not generally the leaders of the church.
They have been marginalized, set aside, forgotten.
They are troublemakers, always stirring up controversy, always insisting on a “relational holiness” that no one else is interested in.
They cause people to leave the church.
They make people uncomfortable with their talk of confession and repentance.
They tend to upset the apple cart of liturgy and do not seem to respect authority in the church.
The danger is that our lampstand of effective ministry will be taken from us. The building may remain. A few people may still come to worship, but souls are not saved, and lives are not changed. That’s too messy after all.
“Strengthen what remains” in any event means to take whatever spiritual fervor that still exists in the church whether it is in the pastor or the janitor and focus on that. Blow that flame into a fire that will consume the chaff and allow the wheat to grow.
Don’t ignore that warning. The chaff and the wheat will remain in the church until Jesus comes at the end of time to separate the sheep from the goats. That is his job after all. But here on earth, we must be careful not to allow the chaff to choke out the wheat completely but rather encourage and strengthen the wheat to minister to the chaff within and without the church. Otherwise, our opportunity for effective ministry will simply die out from neglect and we will be of no use to God in the redemption of mankind.
I, for one, want to walk with Jesus in the purity of “relational holiness” and be counted “worthy” to provide a true and faithful witness to the transforming work of Christ within when the storms of life come.
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the Book of Life but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:6 NIV).
What is this talk about being “blot out” from “the Book of Life?” I thought that Christians had the assurance of salvation and that once they were saved, they were always saved. I didn’t realize that I could have my name blotted out from the Book of Life.
The Book of Life is a bit like the registries each city had with a roster of all of their citizens written in it. But it is also something more in biblical terms. It first shows up when Moses talked about it in Exodus 32 when he was interceding for the people of Israel. “Please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Ex. 32: 32 NIV).
Apparently, this isn’t about going to heaven which wasn’t revealed until the time of Christ (with some precursors beforehand). This was about physical life and death. Moses was saying to God that he was willing to die on behalf of the people.
It reminds us of something Paul said in the book of Romans when he took this even further speaking about the nation of Israel. “For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom. 9:3,4a NIV). But even he knew that the only one who could provide that service was Christ himself when he became sin on the cross for us.
Psalm 39:28 (among a number of other verses scattered throughout the Old Testament) also talks about the possibility of being “blotted out” of the Book of Life. It is certainly true that in the New Testament, especially later in the book of Revelations, the book of life refers to the list of the redeemed who would experience eternal life.
Some people claim that the problem can be resolved when you understand that Jesus is using the concept of the “book of life” in Old Testament terms referring to physical life. But that is also problematic. Is he saying that those “who overcome” will not die physically? Or not face persecution and death? That can’t be right.
Perhaps there is a relationship with the “crown of life” that is promised to those who are martyred (James 1:12, Rev. 2:10 NIV). Not everyone gets one apparently so it must have something to do with a “quality” of life in eternity that is their reward. Possibly.
The book of physical life has now become the book of eternal life and the book of Revelations is clear that the names written there have been written since “the creation of the world” (Rev. 17:8b NIV) and yet Jesus promises “never to blot out his name from the book of life.” As if that were a possibility.
This ties in with an old debate in the church between the Arminians who believe that we can lose our salvation and the Calvinists who believe that we cannot. It is not a debate that can be resolved here but I personally believe that it is a question of perspective. In the perspective of eternity, these things are written from the foundations of the earth. No doubt. God lives in an eternal present and is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To talk of the sovereignty of God is to acknowledge the priority of the eternal perspective.
But it is also true that man must respond. It is true that we have a say in the matter. Whether God knows our responses before we even make them or whether we are somehow bound by divine decree or destiny to respond favorably to his call, no one really knows. What we do know is that God, himself, calls us to confess, to repent, to respond to the Gospel, to embrace radical discipleship, to give a true and faithful witness to him even unto death.
Whatever our position on these issues, however else you may want to explain it, one thing is true. God expects us to respond and therefore we can, and we must. We are able to respond or not to respond and there are eternal consequences to our decisions.
Certainly, at the very least, we can admit that we can only “respond” with the help of God. Even the Arminians believe that and therefore we cannot take any credit for it as if we are somehow morally credited with our righteous decisions. Even in a state of grace where righteous decisions can be made, we need to be strengthened by Christ to be able to follow and even want to follow him daily, bearing our cross.
After all, that is what the transformation within is all about. That is what we are testifying to in the first place. The power of God within leads us into a process of transformation that includes our renewed will and heartfelt desire. Paul tells us that it is God within us that makes us want to do his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13 NIV).
So where does that leave us?
I often tell people that it is easy to assume that we are Christians and true followers of Christ when we are no such thing. We may look the part, show up in church, and even have the “reputation of being alive” but, in fact, we are dead. Rather than assume that the Holy Spirit is within us as a seal of our salvation (Eph. 1:13 NIV), we must examine our hearts to see whether or not we are in the faith (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV).
As Jesus would put it, there must be the “fruit” of repentance (Matt. 3:8 NIV). There must be proof that we are the children of God and that the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Otherwise, we are just fooling ourselves.
This was the problem with the church in Sardis as well. It is easy to assume but hard to examine. The very act of “examining our hearts” is part of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8 NIV) and is a good start.
But what does this have to do with the concept of Jesus “blotting out” our name from the Book of Life? To blot out is an active verb and indicates some kind of “erasure” of what was there before. Perhaps it is better to think of it in a more passive sense of Jesus not being able to find your name in the Book of Life because it was never there in the first place, and you proved it with your actions.
That doesn’t really do the text justice, but it is the best we can do for the Calvinists. The Arminians (most charismatics, Pentecostal, and Baptist groups) understand the issue. Calvinists, with their correct belief in the Sovereignty of God, often lack the spiritual fervor to act. Arminians, on the other hand, find motivation to fight for their spiritual walk with God and generally demonstrate more fruit in ministry. We often say that we should “Pray like a Calvinist (since we depend on Him for everything), but act like an Arminian (since we have a significant role to play in the plans of God).
You get the idea.
In any event, this was serious business that had eternal consequences. What incredible folly to rely on right theology to protect you from the second death instead of the fruit of the Spirit in confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Your theology may be correct, but the truth of it may not apply to you.
Think about it.
If you are in the church and you look good but are dead inside, do not in any way believe that you will stand before the judgment seat of God. The name of Jesus is not a magic pill that you can take when the time comes. It is a relationship with Him, where he claims before the Father “to know” you that matters. If there is still a spark of something within, you must strengthen it before it dies out and take the call to radical discipleship seriously.
There is no more dangerous place in the universe than the church.
Everyone is welcome both chaff and wheat, but the chaff will be thrown into eternal fire with the regret of grinding teeth and painful resentment to accompany them. How many of our fellow churchgoers, how many officers of the board, how many Sunday School teachers, how many pastors or missionaries or evangelists will be cast into the lake of fire, the second death because they assumed they would be saved with no fruit of reconciliation to prove their case.
They may cry out ‘Lord, Lord,’ did we not work our entire lives in the ministry? Did you not bless our ministry with signs and wonders and many who were saved? Did we not pray with people, pay our tithes, sacrifice our family time, and have to deal with the mess of ministry up until the day of our retirement? Were we not faithful in our work?
And he will say to them, “I never knew you.”
We did not have a relationship. The ministry of reconciliation through the power of the cross was not your focus. You did not humble yourself and repent of your sin or walk in faith the path of repentance. You have unforgiveness in your heart. You have many people with whom you are not reconciled even to the day of your death. Where is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life, not just the spiritual gifts? The fruit is what matters.
How often did the spirit of politics reign in your board meetings?
How often were the poor turned away, the homeless told not to stink up the chairs and just come for the pastries and the coffee?
How many times did the pettiness of protecting church property get in the way of effective ministry?
How often did you just follow the crowd, to keep the people happy, instead of allowing my emissary, barefoot, and in flip-flops minister to you?
Radical discipleship is not for the faint of heart, but it is a necessary prerequisite to building a relationship with Christ with a strong foundation so that the storms of life will not destroy your testimony. If you are more worried about your “reputation for being alive” than for actually being alive and having your name in “the Book of Life,” then there is nothing that can be done for you. Your decisions matter.
Hopefully, you can hear “what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
The Desert Warrior