“I know your deeds” (Revelation 2:2, NIV)
What makes a church successful? Surely it’s the numbers?
The letters of the risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia Minor, recorded in Revelation chapters 2-3, should make us think differently. They teach us, above all, that what matters is what Jesus thinks of a church, not what we think of it.
John is on Patmos, and there the risen, majestic Christ appears to him. He gives him the vision which becomes the book of Revelation – a vision designed, in the first instance, to be conveyed to these seven churches. Before the vision itself, however, come letters from him to each of the churches, bringing them each a personal message. In them he brings words of warning and encouragement, and an evaluation of how they are getting on in his eyes.
So, for instance, the church at Ephesus is commended for holding fast to apostolic truth, but warned because it has lost its first love. The churches at Pergamum and Thyatira are warned gravely for their tolerance of false teaching and immorality. The church at Laodicea has somehow become dangerously lukewarm in its attitudes. The churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia are commended, and encouraged, for their perseverance in the face of terrible persecution.
It is very striking that these are the aspects of church which the Lord Jesus pays most attention to. For they are not always the things we judge churches by. J C Ryle (see last week’s blog) comments on this passage in his book Holiness: “sacraments, Church government, the use of a liturgy, the observance of ceremonies and forms, are all as nothing compared to faith, repentance and holiness.” To this list we might add the style of the music, which is often a way people evaluate churches. These are not unimportant, but these letters suggest that none matter to him in the way that a church’s holiness does. Perhaps it was judging the church by the wrong criteria that led the church at Sardis to have a reputation for being alive – even though it was, in fact, dead (Revelation 3:1).
This said, these letters are not just evaluations; they are also a mighty encouragement. They show that behind these struggling, and probably unimpressive churches, stands a figure of awesome power and glory. He walks among them; he holds them in his hand.
These letters are a fine reality check for real success – and point us to the one who can bring it.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Revelation 2:11)