THE SEVEN CHURCHES IN CHRIST'S EYES
By Thomas Cosmades
The church, Christ's body on earth, has undergone – and is undergoing – a number of variations and transformations since its inception. Alas! Many for the worse. The Head of the Body once spoke from heaven to seven churches. Through them He is still speaking, laying bare the stage under the probing of His all-seeing eyes. He is reiterating the need for change: "One of us must undergo a radical change. By the principle of My eternal self-existence and self-sufficiency, change is not the process of my nature."
The church comes under His constant scrutiny worldwide. The general consensus is that the advance of time demands modifications. The Head of the Body, exalted in the highest, reminds every individual in the church that change is an alarming trend if unilaterally administered. There is only one direction for change: to higher and better commitment, administered through his Holy Spirit. The condition of the seven churches in Christ's eyes draws the vigilant viewer's assiduity to striking observations.
I. EPHESUS — EMOTIONAL CHURCH
"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first" (Rev. 2:4). These words describe the characteristic of a sentimental church. Such is the stance of the Ephesian church, as is the state of many churches today. The apostle Paul who experienced Christ’s measureless love, was instrumental in the inception of this church. He concluded his epistle with a strong admonition: "Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible" (Eph. 6:24). His letter – probably a general epistle – preceded Christ's by a generation. The Ephesian Christians manifested their love at the outset with history's most stupendous bonfire by burning their highly-prized books on sorcery (Acts 19: 18-20). But this love eroded and diminished within a generation. The church did manage to stay away from heretical contamination. They hated the work of the Nicolaitans. In that notoriously immoral city, sensuousness could not molest her. From the gist of the letter it is conjectured they had other noteworthy qualities. But all lose their significance when love is allowed to diminish.
Although they had such prominent features, the church is called by her very Head to repent. Their sin is waning love toward the One who deserves utmost devotion at all times, under all circumstances. The church in Ephesus was on the skids but it did not realise her condition. Jesus Christ put the church in the world, but it did not take very long for Satan to put the world in the church.
The renowned son of Ephesus, Heraclitus (576-480 B.C.) introduced the maxim of Panta Rei: In nature the only actuality is change. All things seem to remain, but the only abiding principle is change itself. Everything is in flux. Similarly, love for Christ in the church took an ominous turn in a rather short time. Being steadily fed by this broadly-held persuasion they were caught in its grinding teeth of decay. Could it be that they lost touch with the Logos? To borrow an observation from Carl F. H. Henry, "the only genuine prototype of Agape is the Logos become flesh".
There is argument about the shifting nature of all that we know or see. But love for the Son of God can only move upward, never downward (II Cor. 5:14; Gal. 2:20). This love manifests itself in the fervency of consistent evangelism, along with involvement in the needs of fellow human beings. Isn't the gist of the parable on Lazarus and the Dives centered on this aspect of love, or its absence? The same may be said at least in part in the parable of the Good Samaritan (cf, Matt 25:40; Luke 11:41; 12:33, 34; Acts 20:35) If appreciation of supreme love for Christ subsides there is a deep crisis. Faith has turned to an emotional sentiment. Commit yourself to it when convenient, let go when more important demands crowd in.
Without question emotion in faith is necessary and proper, provided it is of spiritual nature and not carnal. But love for Christ cannot be measured in emotional terms; Heraclitus' maxim is not applicable to the healthy life of the church. The church in decline does not deserve the appellation ekklesia. It has become one of the many changing institutions in this fleeting world scene. Christ says, if you don't return to the love which transcends every other devotion, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. Every day, everywhere, countless lampstands are being removed. Is yours a fading or a beaming lamp?
II. SMYRNA — VICTORIAL CHURCH
"Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life" (Rev. 2:10). Mt. Pagus, overlooking the beautiful Gulf of the Ionian city of Smyrna was the crown of the reborn city. Smyrna was dead until Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) was struck with its splendor and gave orders for its reconstruction and resurrection. Smyrna had a new birth after having undergone the pangs of death.
The church in Smyrna – physically poor in a very rich port city – was going through hard times. More ominous days lay ahead. Nevertheless, the whole ekklesia as a heroic, life-generating body, stayed true to her Head in Heaven, pleasing Him to the utmost. In this, the briefest of His seven letters, the Lord, source of all comfort (II Cor. 1:3), supplies the needed comfort to His highly-tried but loved body. He who says, "Do not fear," is the one who through His love dispels all fear (I John 4:18).
Along with the consolation comes the cheering admonition: be constant in faithfulness, and recompense will be certain. While there is no reference to love in the letter, Paul's admonition to the Ephesians in 6:24 is clearly evident in to the community of believers in Smyrna. The church was under physical as well as psychological oppression. The unflinching faithfulness to her living Head made her strong to withstand the intensifying onslaughts of the enemy determined to effect her demise. Victory over the enemy set out to destroy her was the supernatural provision. It is embodied in her supernatural origin.
The church is being attacked from every quarter. Innumerable are the schemes of the foe to bring her to her knees. Churches everywhere have fallen and are falling by the wayside. Victory available to the church is exchanged for infamous defeat. The modes of defeat are myriad: doctrinal, theological, spirirual, material, ethical, lackadaisical, functional, factional, practical, moral, pastoral, fealtial and in numerous other areas.
The defeat of a fighting army, a sports contestant, or a business enterprise are sad. But there is nothing more distressing than when the church, a body destined for victory, allows denigrating defeat to come upon her own head. On the contrary a victorious church standing against a barrage of attacks is highly gratifying to behold. The power and sustenance of the ever-present Victor are there. He who scored lasting triumph over Satan, death, hell and the system of this world is the guarantor of destiny, extending victory to His church in a world of disheartening defeats. In this world of defeats, it is the only valid victory. The admonition emanating from the supreme Head has absolute effect upon His church which is buffeted from every side. In the second century Polycarp defied the powers that be and died a victorious death on Mt. Pagus, adding a shining chapter to the annals of the church triumphant. His valor was to be followed by Ignatius.
To what forces is the church bowing, thus admitting defeat? The road to victory is open for all, provided the nature of the foe is discerned, his tactics recognised, and a stance of faithfulness to Christ is espoused. The church is in the midst of a fierce warfare. The church that does not recognise the ongoing battle and is unaware of the promised victory is to be pitied. Christ says to the victorial church, "I know your trials. I know your lack of affluence. For your sake I became poor so that by my poverty you might become rich" (cf. II Cor. 8:9). Every day, everywhere, through indescribable suffering unknown heroes are being promoted to the ranks of the triumphant church. Who is the committed believer to swell those ranks?
III. PERGAMUM — CONCESSIONAL CHURCH
"I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is … you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam … so you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans" (Rev. 2: 13,14,15). The ancient capital of the Attalid Empire (241-133 B.C.) was situated on an acropolis in splendid grandeur. It was embellished with Grecian and Roman temples. The Temple of Zeus and the Aesclepium--located on a different site--were foremost. The Temple of Dominus et Deus, chronologically last and rising all alone, stood for syncretism. Here every citizen was obliged to burn a few grains of incense and bow down before the Emperor's image as god. The person was then free to perform whatever his particular religion required. In such a milieu, the church was battling for the retention of her loyalty to the Head above.
In this church, situated in the middle of Satan's throne, the undershepherd or a venerable elder receives special recognition. He is remembered by the Lord as "Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells" (Rev. 2:13). What a gallant community it would have been, had all communicants been in Antipas' mold and stance! Lamentably, everyone's faithfulness was not the same as that of Antipas, the daring martyr who was commended from heaven. There were syncretists here, such as in our times of pluralistic ecumenism or inclusive theology. Pergamum is a conciliar body: "We make concession wherever necessary. Everyone is included: saints and not-so-saintly ones can find their own place within our broad ranks. We bar no one; we don't differentiate between church people. Scrutiny and intolerance are outdated. We should not leave anyone of good intentions out, regardless of differing beliefs or practices. No one person's way is better than any other's." Such is the argument of the conciliar stance; there is no definite persuasion. Standards may be lowered if there's a call for it, but they cannot be elevated to conform to scriptural theology. The essential ingredients are love and unity. Intolerance towards some deviation is dismaying, charity is the norm. The teachings of Balaam, the Nicolaitans and a host of others have always found acceptance in many a community, despite the abhorrence by the Head above. Who considers the value of His admonition?
Christ said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Me" (John 14:6). He has not renounced His claim of uniqueness, nor has He made any concession. Under no condition has He become conciliar, although wayward mortals have sought to make him so. The orthodox segment of the church has always insisted on the validity of theology taught in the Holy Scriptures as the litmus test. The concessional stance has only precedence in places like Pergamum, and it is a peculiar phenomenon of these times. Its effect is seen in a wide spectrum of 'Christianity'.
"Let him who has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches. " Besides the theological realm, test other areas: where concession is allowed. What involvements and practices are against His wishes?. Which resolutions are compromised by a conciliar stance?. What acts betray the lowering of age-long conviction and commitment – all against standards set by the Head. It behooves everyone to examine his or her stance in the light of Christ's solemn standard. We humans are the most inconsistent of all beings. When inconsistency is carried into the church, her very direction and purpose is lost. Nature makes no room for conflicting forces in a healthy system. Breakdown of harmony invites irregularity. How much worse is the situation in a community known as the Body of Christ, where concessions are made in all directions. When former convictions are allowed to erode in order to conciliate diverse notions, the scenario is disharmony and incoherence. The results affect everyone.
Is the church a healthy or an unhealthy body? Christ points to the latter when He says, "Repent!" And He adds His solemn warning: "If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth' (Rev. 2:16). Borrowing from another passage we may ask: "Am I putting the Lord to test?" (I Cor. 10:9). "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God." (Heb. 10:27,31). Am I testing Him even in a single area of conduct?
IV. THYATIRA — CONDITIONAL CHURCH
"But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel" (Rev. 2:19). Her real name, or is it a referral name to the notorious queen of Israel? Probably the latter. The Jezebel of the Old Testament assumed the role of religious manipulator. So did this one in the hapless church of Thyatira, to whom Christ despatches the longest of His seven letters.
This Jezebel undertook the task of conditioning the adherents of Christ to her own position. Her manipulation reached its zenith when she steered them to tolerate her own precepts and practices. She was a most successful behaviorist before the time. What were her doings? Thyatira was an industrial city, drawing many workers from the surrounding country for employment in the shops. Each shop was renowned for its own guild. Closed shop was the order of the day. There were guilds of those working with leather, clothing, stone, timber, iron, silver, gold, etc. and probably purple goods (Acts 16:14). In the trade unions of the day membership did not stop with paying dues and attending meetings for the rights of the working class. An essential part of guild membership was participation in religious rites. The basically pagan rites involved all manner of performances for the benefit of the guild, each one having its particular god or goddess.The guild rites made provision for every excess known and practiced in the pagan society of the time. There was no restraint. Some of these rituals went as far as immorality or feasting around meals sacrificed to idols. This was one of the snares of being hired as a worker.
Wish we knew more about this Jezebel who called herself a prophetess, an appellation confirmed by the majority in the church. A careful observation of Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal (I Kings 16:29; Chron. 18,19,21; II Kings 9:30-37) will supply extensive background as to the activities of the modern Jezebel. Just as that Jezebel shrewdly led Ahab and the rest of the people to her Baal worship, this one, assuming the role of prophetess, exerted her influence upon the church to condition them as she saw fit. A great conflict arose within the ranks of the church: As workers and adherents of the faith, should we attend or not attend the pagan rites of the guild? They needed firm guidance. Jezebel, a strong personality, jumped in to fill the vacuum. Her solution was practicable. It will not hurt your commitment if you participate in the obligatory rituals of your guild. No harm! You can do both.
Jezebel formulated her own system of religion and conditioned those in the church to assent to her authority as prophetess. Her lie was embraced by many. Very likely, she herself had interest in some manufacturing concern and its guild. A woman of benefice and influence! The Jezebel of the Old Testament conditioned a whole nation to her whims, as the one of the New Testament conditioned a church. She even talked about the deep things of Satan (Rev. 2:24), opening the road to spiritism. Disastrous is the path trodden by those conditioned by the whims and notions of strong personalities or institutions. Jezebel programmed the believers in Thyatira, such as the current pluralistic theology which politicised the Christian message and secularised the Church.
Here is the religion where things are relative. Life requires adjustment in the community: a precept which destroyed many a church. The forces attacking the church are even stronger than Jezebel's determined effort. As Jezebel moved practically a whole church, extensive forces in firmness of purpose are moving multitudes continually. Behaviorism claims, and succeeds in advocating, that humans can be shaped and molded into any desired pattern. Therefore, there can be no absolute truth, ethics or morality. With the passing of centuries, this trend has increasingly gained credibility. Behavioral theorists interpret the reality of life in terms of relational connections. According to this presumption, man is left without freedom, without the concept of truth and fallacy or right and wrong. Millions of church people of our day simply toe the party line, without resorting to God’s word in order to make their choice.
Believers, whose guiding principle is the Holy Scriptures and apostolic practice, are constantly being wooed and conditioned to unimaginable thought patterns and persuasion. Forceful efforts from the media, academia, art, recreation, business ventures, contemporary culture, neighbor or stranger, political polls and a host of other influences are offered to change attitudes and views. Let each person realise the barrage of forces seeking to condition him or her, by shaping views and practices. Being conditioned by forces outside the supreme Head will only invite condemnation. The deep grief brought on Him will translate itself to judgment. In this, the longest of His letters, Christ twice calls the church to repentance, pointing painfully to her refusal to do so (Rev. 2:21,23). There are countless churches and individuals commanded to repent, which is the only therapy opening the way to catharsis. Repent and become recipient of My countless benefits forever! Who will listen to His pleading voice?
V. SARDIS — SUICIDAL CHURCH
"I know you have the name of being alive, and you are dead" (Rev. 3;11). Probably the saddest pronouncement, from life-giving heaven to death-inflicting earth. Severance of healthy attachment from the Christ who is our life results in the most natural consequence: death. During these times of speculative theology, the notion, 'death of God' was formulated. Its life-span was briefer than most modern platitudes. But the question ought to be asked from those who disdained this existentialist invention "is your God, giver of life, truly alive?" To appreciate this fact and appropriate its benefits there is a call for a death which opens the course to the all-surpassing life: "But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall live with Him" (Rom. 6:8). Jesus Christ refers to this striking reminder voiced by the joyful father receiving his wayward son: "This, my son, was dead and is alive again" (Luke 15:24,32). Sin, by divine verdict, has the sentence of death (Gen. 2:17). But who talks about 'sin' today? Modern man has managed to de-sin sin! In our age both sin and insensibility to sin increase side by side.
When Ephraim pronounced the oracles of YAHWEH, conviction gripped hearts. He was exalted in Israel. Then he strayed into Baal worship. This gross offence resulted in his death (Hosea 13:1). Conversely, another witness is given about the life and conduct of the apostolic church: "None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor" (Acts 5:13).
Paul, in specifying the position and pursuance of women in the church, makes a striking statement encompassing all time: "She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives" (I Tim. 5:6). He stresses the same condition repeatedly in the twin epistles, emphasising Christ's effective power that produces the opposite result: "...when we were dead through trespasses and sins, God made us alive together with Christ..." (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13). What happened to the church situated in Sardis, the oldest of the seven cities? How did she lose out to death? Why and how did the church degenerate to such an ominous aftermath? And that within a generation? How did the undeniable values escape her appreciation? "Remember then what you received and heard; keep that and repent" (Rev. 3:3). Against bearing this fast becoming popular name she lost sight of its contingent elements, i.e. the ramifications of the message attached to the name.
The church in Sardis committed suicide because she forgot the supreme values making for life. She did not use her faculties for remembering properly. She did not exercise the supreme concern to sustain the spiritual life that was hers. Protecting one's natural life is a universal trait; neglecting one's spiritual life is a habitual irregularity. The person paving his way to physical suicide forgets all good and pleasant aspects of life. Death is considered a convenient exit, a solution to quandaries. The sad rule affecting individual suicide is applicable to that of church also. History marks the graveyard of countless churches doomed under some physical sword, such as that of Islam. Sadder still are churches which have deliberately chosen the road to death rather than the road to life: "See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil... I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live'' (Deut. 30: 15, 19). Conversely, the people who were in toto aware of this admonition took the reverse course: "Because you have said, 'We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement...' " (Isa. 28:15).
The congregation in Sardis deliberately took the suicidal road. The same quandary that opens the road of suicide with individuals operates in churches: There is failure to apprehend life's reality, a loss of direction towards life's objective and foreclosure of its attainment. Forfeiture of these basic values leaves no interest for an assured existence regardless of the views of existentialism. Suicide becomes the desperate resolve when one is at the crossroads. How sad! When the church loses touch with her living Head in heaven, the road ends in self-destruction. What could the Church's share of responsibility be in the current coercion that plotted the oft quoted line 'post-Christian era'?
"Remember then what you received and heard; keep that and repent" (Rev. 3:3). While most of the people had already forgotten their exhilarating inception and committed suicide as a congregation, there were still a few names in Sardis who did not forget it and soil their garments. The barely pulsating life was on the verge of extinction. For all practical purposes, Sardis was an assembly that chose suicide. The tragedy of foreclosing life in favor of death! What was the ominous turning point? What disastrous development preceded the church's demise? Reflecting on the other churches it can be deduced that the love for Jesus Christ diminished, counterbalanced by an aspiration for material possessions.
The river Pactolus flowed along Sardis. It was here that the real or mythological King Midas of Gordion, whose legendary touch of all physical beings turned them into gold, could wash away this alarming bestowal of the god Dionysius. The King was soon exasperated with this extraordinary power when his daughter was turned into gold. At the urge of his benefactor deity, he descended into the waters of the Pactolus where the magic touch left him and was passed on to the river, which flowed with an abundance of gold dust perpetually. "Rich like Croesus" (560-456 B.C.) became a byword everywhere. King Croesus' wealth had its time limit. The temptation for material accumulation was quite forceful on the Sardian church. The Midas touch had its effect on her. In the process, love for Jesus Christ waned, and along with it life in the assembly weakened. In the meantime the neighboring church in Smyrna retained her allegiance to the Lord with full spiritual vitality.
No one bothered to oppress the church in Sardis. There can be no harm in a dead body. Current conditions everywhere run a similar course. The church in this ancient city had numerous factors in operation causing her demise. The process was slow just like the frog in a slowly heating cauldron, unaware that eventual boiling would ultimately induce death. The Sardian Christians were on the verge of tormenting death. They were like Samson, not knowing that the Sustainer of Life had left them (Judges 17:20). Some people are diverted from the final step of suicide. Christ admonishes: "Remember, keep that and repent. He who conquers shall be clad in white raiment." Dying churches are no oddity. Bringing them back to life can be looked at as an exception. Effortless descent, as against strenous ascent. Denial of Christ's resurrection power (Phil. 3:10), is equal to making a covenant with death. This is the certain route to suicide. "I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God" (Rev. 3:12).
Failing to draw the needed energy for all our activities from the power of His resurrection, the road to death is open. "Therefore it is said, 'Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ shall give you light' " (Eph. 5:14). Blessed is the individual or church that with Augustine of Hippo takes to heart the Pauline admonition: "It is full time now for you to wake from sleep...Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Rom. 13:11,14). In all the areas of my life, where is the smell of death, already noticed by Him who is Life?
VI. PHILADELPHIA — EXPANSIONAL CHURCH
"I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name" (Rev. 13: 11,14).
The Philadelphian assembly in the outlying stretches of the province of Asia, with but little power, appreciated and capitalised on the God-supplied open gateway in front of her. She persistently retained her fidelity to Christ's Word and name. He had promised triumph over her adversaries, and that she was to become a firm pillar in God's temple. Alongside the assembly in Smyrna, Philadelphia appears as a bright star in this tumultuous constellation. Her praiseworthy qualities cannot escape the assiduous viewer's attention: Her works are not censured. The believers are capable of entering the open door and moving on. She is not discouraged by her conspicuous lack of power. She is not intimidated by Satan's synagogue surrounding her. She is faithful in conduct. She is loved by the Lord. Her reliance on His command to endure patiently is flawless. There is no particular call to repentance. She is to be counted among many conquerors. A crown is reserved for her at His coming.
This heart-warming commendation emanates from the Holy One, the true One (Rev. 3:7; 6:10), against the lying words of Satan (Rev. 3:9, cf. John 8:44). With such acknowledgment from the Sovereign in heaven and the congregational commitment to Him, there can only be continuous advance and exploit. The Lord's reassuring words always ring a note of confidence to a church pursuing fidelity. "Truly, truly I say to you, if anyone keeps my word he will never see death." (John 8:51).
Philadelphia was renowned as the 'Little Athens of Asia'. The city was in love with Athens' cultural grandeur, which she disseminated wherever and whenever she could. The goal of the whole community was to be worthy propagators of the Athenian way of life in all interaction. The culture-loving citizens of Philadelphia meticulously pursued and executed their desired intention. During the course of time a church sprung up in this illustrious city, probably under adverse circumstances. Christ's followers could not be outdone by the devotees of glittering excellence. They set out to declare the glory emanating from the superlative majesty, the word and name of Jesus Christ. In this they persevered, not being disquieted by the little power and insignificant nature they possessed. Their real power lay elsewhere. What can please the glorified Savior more than an insistent testimony to His name and Word, consistent with pure and blameless conduct! (Eph. 5:9; Phil. 1:5,11). The Philadelphian church fulfilled her mission commendably in areas where many are failing lamentably today.
Commitment to the expansion of Christ's word and name is marked by ebbs and flows in the course of church history. When William Carey (1761-1834) read the words of the Old Testament evangelist, he could not resist the call to expand (Isaiah 54: 2,3). Paul, from his Roman prison cell, is thanking God for the Philippians' partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until the writing of his letter (Phil. 1:5). He goes on explaining the entailment of such an involvement: Worthy citizenship emanating from the Good News, camaraderie in contesting for the Good News (Phil. 1:27).
The commitment of the church to the Supreme Commander can be evaluated by the appreciation and implementation of these qualities. Any individual or church true to these principles will receive His high commendation. Good theology is consistent only when it parallels good ethics and impassioned zeal for expansion. Such was the Philadelphians' adherence to Jesus Christ. Again, the greatest of all missionaries, Paul, considers himself debtor or obligator to Greeks and to Barbarians, (Rom. 1:14). A cursory analysis of the passage will bear out those areas where his mentioned obligation is manifested.
The renowned apostle was aware that missionary expansion starts with intercessory augmentation (Rom. 1:9). He was likewise highly involved in circuitory protraction. This great figure in history appears as a traveler with the most imposing raison d'etre (Rom. 1:10,13). Further, he was supremely committed to declaratory impartation (Rom. 1:11,15). Jeremiah, Paul, and other luminaries in God's noble call, were under rigorous compulsion to fulfil this paramount charge (cf. Jer. 20:9; I Cor. 9:16; Luke 17:10).
Jonah, though an unwilling missionary, had a message and mandate from God. He was a successful heralder of judgment and redemption. When he willed, he preached with authority and cogency. The response in that pagan metropolis was overwhelming. While an extraordinarily commissioned messenger, he never appreciated his highly-privileged assignment. His story would have ended gloriously had the book come to a full stop with God's altering his verdict due to Nineveh's repentance. To the reader's dismay, the remaining story practically destroys the mighty accomplishment in Nineveh.
The Philadelphian Christians were not like Jonah. They kept pressing toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14). Jonah became tired and disenchanted, following a brilliant mission. The Philadelphian believers did not. There is an element of tiredness in the church busy with many church-centered activities, some superfluous, while overlooking the Body's cardinal call and duty. Paul was spurred on by love for Christ (I Cor. 5:14,15), service for Christ (Phil. 1:23), possessed by His Word (Acts 18:5).
Missionaries from the third world now occupy many a land – once the domain of the Western mainline churches – till He returns. The claim of Christ’s uniqueness and His redemptive offer have been dispensed to anachronism! "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt. 28:18). Once the church brings herself under His absolute, incontrovertible authority, she will be moved by His accurate dynamism to expend and exploit. Will you reveal to me, Spirit of the Living God, the necessity to surrender to Christ in order to expand His Kingdom?
VII. LAODICEA — PROMINENTAL CHURCH
"For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing" (Rev. 3:17). YAHWEH censored His wayward people with a similar rebuke (Hosea 12:8). And the apostle Paul in striving to guide the straying Corinthians into fitting conduct addressed them in analogous caustic language with a cutting cry (I Cor. 4:8).
Prominence, prosperity, profusion plagued the Laodicean church, which was positioned in a city that would be termed the high tech center in current terminology. This affluent city was the financial and banking district of Asia Minor, the Wall Street of the time. It had many prominent properties to its credit: A highly specialised eye medicine agglomeration, where a widely known eye salve was produced. A water system surpassing that of any of its contemporaries. The celebrated Phrygian mantle, manufactured of Angora wool as a single piece, with no seams. Gold changed hands as an ordinary daily commodity. The braggadocio of the community rubbed off on the church.
One of the renowned tri-cities in the Lycus Valley, Laodicea, along with Hierapolis and Colosse, lay in a most fertile and productive region of Asia Minor. Given all the afore-mentioned benefits and a few more, the church founded in this advantageous city encountered many allurements, which eventually became her snare. She grew into prominence within a short time. Among the neighboring churches of Hierapolis and Colosse, Laodicea seemingly fared the worst spiritually.
Was 'Archippus our fellow soldier' (Philemon 2), undershepherd of the Laodiceans? Did his firm stand at the outset abate with materialism and eminence creeping into the soul of the community? "And say to Archippus, 'See that you fulfil the ministry which you have received in the Lord' " (Col. 4:17). Like many a leader throughout the history of the church, Archippus probably could not withstand the rising tide that engulfed the church. Unlike the previous churches, not a single note of encomium appears in this letter. Conversely this succinct remark: "So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot I will spew you out of my mouth" (Rev. 3:15). There is a daunting commentary to this sad warning: "And the land became defiled, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants" (Lev. 18:25).
Some eschatological interpreters place the church of our time in a position similar to that in Laodicea. Perhaps. One fact is clear: God's judgment is on the church, while she is unaware of her ominous exigency, having been blinded by the glamor surrounding her. The church is lacking the insight to discern the true values. "For whoever lacks these is blind and short-sighted and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (II Peter 1:9). The light of God's truth is still radiating, but light without sight is of little value.
Pope Alexander IV vaunted to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) by pointing to the many earthly possessions which had been acquired: "The day is passed when the church would say 'I have no silver and gold!' " To a flaunt of this magnitude Thomas responded: "And the day is passed when the church could say 'In the name of Jesus, walk!' " In our age, self-congratulating churches with their under-shepherds feeding on fame abound. Churches outwardly full in many respects are pronounced lean by the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Hanna's song reiterated by Mary, carries much truth to churches in our wide world. All originate from the One Head but found poles apart. "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (Luke 1:53).
The Laodicean church possessed everything reckoned important in the present world structure. At the same time she disengaged herself from the Head. Grave consequences followed. This is the picture of a church that lost her divine touch and could no longer talk with a prophetic voice – not unlike our times. She did not appreciate the unparalleled opportunity before her. She fell by the wayside among a heap of mundane involvements. The culture prevailed over her, instead of her prevailing with an authoritative message over the culture. Jesus Christ was cut off from the affluent, prosperous society of the day. But worse yet, the church forfeited her share of reciprocity with the life-giving Bridegroom. She was a spiritual widow, unaware of her conspicuous offence. Hosea, the magnanimous prophet of the Old Testament, displaying his persistent love toward the wayward Gomer, is pleading on behalf of YAHWEH with Ephraim, "So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice and wait continually for your God" (Hosea 12:5).
As another Old Testament prophet put it, apart from His grace our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64:6). Apart from His sustaining grace, daily translating our demeanor into sound behavior, we are polluted garments. It did not take long for ungrateful, unfaithful Gomer to return to her former paramours. Does history repeat itself? Christ's bride in Laodicea soon relapsed to her former ways. She fast reached the post-Christian era! The church, the voluntary widow of our time, is continually the target of Christ's pleading, wooing love, nevertheless with a measure of reproving. In His agenda, love and reproof appear as compendium acts (Proverbs 3:12; 27:6). Christ's preponderant forewarning in this respect is clearly voiced (Luke 12:35,36).
Laodicea could not evoke a single note of commendation from her Master in heaven. Casting aside all prepossession, let the current church enter into solemn introspection. Does any of our multitudinous acts invite His favorable notice and approval? What if all our activities fall into the category of lukewarmness? What if our deeds are designated by Him as wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked? No apparent theological deviation or moral-ethical recalcitrance is mentioned regarding this community. Nonetheless, her smug, content, self-congratulatory mien invites severe censure upon the whole body. How much worse is the state of an inclusivistic community where numerous practices become acceptable in the name of religion. "Repent" (Rev. 3:19) is the admonition once again. Probably no other requirement is more pressing on the present-day church.
During a Passover feast, Mary and Joseph took the boy Jesus to Jerusalem. On the return trip, they supposed he was in the company with the crowds but had lost him right in the midst of a religious festival. After a day’s journey they returned to Jerusalem, which meant another day’s trek. And then, they sought him another whole day, but in the wrong places. Finally it dawned on them that he ought to be in the temple, where they did find him astounding the scholars who were answering his questions. Similarly, the Body has lost the One who is the Head. She lost Him amongst all sorts of religious activities and church functions. While Mary and Joseph sought Jesus in alarm, the present day church is content to leave Him where He is. There can be no genuine fellowship between the Christ standing outside, opposed to the lackadaisical attitude and a church refusing to admit her stubborn, impenitent mien.
The city of Laodicea was fortified with firm walls, enclosed by a number of gates. The Head of the Body was left out, while the assembly enjoyed good company with the city and was well spoken of. The church was recipient of the prominence so common in the place. But such a community will enjoy no peace in her sleep while the Beloved is knocking: "Open to Me...". Of course the excuses are numerous for sustaining a comfortable sleep. But when the bride rises to open the door to her beloved, He has already gone! (Canticles 5:2-8). Long have I put my interest above yours, Blessed Christ! Will you return without delay to take over what is yours?