The Spiritually Comatose Church
Sardis Church was one of those churches which everyone knew was a ‘great church’. Its auditorium was packed, its worship services were humming, it was involved in loads of great stuff in the community, its statement of faith was sound, it was growing, it was a strong church… but then Jesus gave his verdict: “You are dead. Wake up and strengthen what remains and is about to die” (Rev. 3:1-2)
I think Sardis would have been stunned by that diagnosis. In fact, all the surrounding churches would have been shocked as well. Surely not Sardis Church! Everyone knew that they were the alive church, the happening church, the buzzing church (Rev. 3:1). But Jesus says they are the spiritually comatose church. They have “soiled their clothes” – how’s that for an image!
What was the problem?
A focus on present reputation rather than eschatological reputation. They may have a name now for being alive but Jesus says, to all the churches (Rev. 2-3), that current appearances and reputations are deceptive. The church that looks poor is actually rich; the church that thinks it is rich is actually poor. The people who say they are Jews are actually a synagogue of Satan. So current names and reputations are pretty meaningless. What really counts is having your name in the Lamb’s book of life. What really counts is having Jesus confess your name before the Father on the last day. What really counts is being one of those names who get to walk with Jesus in the new Eden (Rev. 3:4-5).
A focus on works but without relationship and longing. Jesus said they were busy working (Rev. 3:1) but their works were ‘incomplete’ (Rev. 3:2). Why incomplete? Probably the answer is in 1 Corinthians 13 – without love I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Like the church in Ephesus, it seems that most of those at Sardis had forgotten their first love. They were busy but their busyness was a going through the motions without love – not waiting and longing to be with the Lord and walk with him, just busy ‘churchianity’.
The Sermon on the Mount
Look at Matthew 5-7 and we see the same two emphases:
- The Pharisees, at least many of them, were focused on present reputation. They loved to be greeted in the marketplaces and take the top table at the banquets. They loved to be seen by others giving, praying and fasting (Matt. 6). They had a good reputation among the Jews. They were the models everyone looked up to. And they loved being looked up to and praised. But Jesus says, “They’ve had their reward here and now from men; what you really need to focus on is the future reward from your heavenly Father.” In the beatitudes Jesus turns everything on its head, again – the ones who currently have a name for being poor, sad, thirsty, those who people call all sorts of horrible names, they will have great future reward, while the hypocrites, the play-actors, will be unmasked and exposed and cast out.
- Work is good when it is the fruit of true life and relationship (Matt. 7:16-20). Obedience is essential (Matt. 7:24). But there is a form of work without relationship. There are going to be many who are working hard – prophesying, driving out demons, doing many mighty works (Matt. 7:22) – who will ultimately be found not to have had a relationship with Jesus. “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23). They did a lot of ministry stuff but the fire of their devotion and longing for Christ, if it was ever there, had gone cold (Matt. 24:12; 25:1-12).
The solution: Wake up!
“Have we replaced the bracing realities of the gospel with ‘evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education, but of narcotised defence against time’?”
Sardis is called to, “Remember what you received and heard” (Rev. 3:3). They had drifted from the gospel they first heard. They had forgotten the gospel of a coming wrath and a Jesus who saves us from that wrath by taking our portion in his own body on the Cross. They had got tired of the great gospel of the coming crucified King, coming in all his glory to punish his enemies and complete the salvation of his people. For those who are awake that coming will be the wonderful arrival of the bridegroom (Rev. 19) but for those who are asleep, that coming will not be good news – it will be the trauma of a burglary, the entrance of a thief (Rev. 3:3).
Are we asleep to this gospel? Am I really living as if this is true – that Jesus is coming back – maybe later today – to punish rebels and reward his waiting bride? Have we replaced the bracing realities of the gospel with “evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education, but of narcotised defence against time” (Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry, p. 227)? Is it possible that whole churches have basically lost the plot and fallen asleep? Are we playing at church, playing at Christianity – play-acting to an audience of one another, putting on slick worship services and patting one another on the back and enjoying in-jokes while a huge dam is about to burst and unleash a tsunami of wrath on this earth leaving only those in Christ standing?
The Bucket of Water
Have a read of Revelation 16 or Revelation 20:11-21:8. That is the bucket of water we need to pour over heads to wake us up. These are the realities of the Word which we need to allow to grab hold of us and shake us and say, “Wake up! This is reality! Jesus really is going to come on the clouds. There really is going to be a great white throne with one seated on it who is so terrifying in his judgment that the earth and sky flee away screaming. We are all going to stand there before him – everyone who has ever lived. And on the basis of the record against us, everyone is destined to be picked up and thrown into the lake of fire. And the only way that doesn’t happen is if your name is written in the book of life of the Lamb who went through that fire instead of you. This is real. This is coming. Wake up!”
If we were awake to these things what would it look like?
- It might look like the life of the Earl of Shaftesbury who was one of the great social reformers of the nineteenth century, working tirelessly in parliament and outside for the cause of the poor, disadvantaged, neglected and the spiritually lost, who said, as he looked back over 40 years of public life, “I do not think in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.”
- It might look a bit like the life of guys like Richard Baxter and George Whitefield and Robert Murray McCheyne who worked flat out for the gospel because they saw that Christ was coming back, who spoke like dying men to dying men, who were deeply conscious of heaven and hell, who (as John Piper put it) preached as if though God were real – because he is.
- It would certainly look like not being worried about our present reputation, not being bothered about crafting our profile and boosting our likes – why? – because we would be awake and looking forward to that day when Jesus ‘will own my worthless name before His Father’s face.’
It would certainly look like a love and passion for Jesus imbuing everything we do. No longer the works of unthinking zombie-like mechanical performance but labours of love. No longer items on a tick list but acts of devotion to the coming king.
Andy Harker is one of my dear friends from University and a bloke I look up to on many levels as a true brother. I hope you’ve been challenged and encouraged by this post through his superb teaching.
In May 2011 the Harkers moved to Nairobi to serve with iServe Africa. Andy’s main work is developing training curricula and courses, mentoring apprentices, teaching on the quarterly ministry training weeks and building links with like-minded ministries across Africa. Susie is working as a full-time mum. They have three children: Bethan, Jacob and Hannah. If you would like to support them in this costly ministry, please head here now.
You can also read more of Andy’s blogs here: http://watumishiwaneno.wordpress.com/