When Jesus Evaluates His Church (Sermon)
Several months ago, when I believed that my Grandmother was in her final days, I went to see her. As I arrived with several of my cousins, we began to reminisce about special memories of my Grandmother. As we began pulling out old photo albums, my aunt showed us a stack of letters. The letters were all from 1943, 1944, and 1945. You see, my Grandmother had kept every single letter my Grandfather had written to her while he was in the Army during World War II.
The earliest letters were written from various army bases here in the states and as time moved on each letter simply said up in the right-hand corner—"somewhere in Germany” or “somewhere in Austria.” As I read through my Grandfather’s letters, it was fascinating to encounter his joy—when he would receive unexpected news—or his confusion when he hadn’t received a letter in a few days, or his anxiety when the fear and uncertainty of the war was pressing in on him. He wondered in his letters if he would ever return home and what home would be like when he returned.
Friends, reading my grandparents letters transported me to a time long before the internet and email and cell phones—before Skype and FaceTime—a time when your heart would race when you received a letter, not having any idea what you find within its pages. I think it’s helpful for us to remember the nature of letters—and to keep this in mind as we embark on our study this morning.
If you’re not there already, turn to Revelation 1. The book of Revelation as a whole can be challenging, but in the first three chapters, we find a record of seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. Here’s the purpose of the letters: the letters contain Jesus’ evaluation of these seven churches, and they reveal to us how Jesus thinks about local churches.
This morning, I want us to look at just one letter to one church, and here’s is why this message is the final in our series called, Life at Redeemer. As you know, over the last several weeks, we’ve been opening up our Bibles and defining our distinctives and direction as a church. We’ve established that we want to be a biblically healthy church that equips disciples to make disciples.
But, here’s another way to state our vision as a church: we want to be a church that cares more about what Jesus thinks of us than what anyone else thinks of us. We want to drown out all the voices telling us what we need to do, and be as a church and listen intently to only one voice—the voice of Jesus. Because in the final analysis, the only opinion of Redeemer Bible Church that matters at all is the opinion of Jesus.
(Rev 1:10-11) I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
So, a messenger of Jesus reveals to John what to write to 7 different churches. Ultimately the letters are for Jesus to his people. The 7 churches listed in vs. 11 were real, literal, local churches. They may not have had pews and steeples, but they had members and leaders. They are just 7 congregations that Jesus chose to write letters to—teaching, explaining, encouraging, critiquing and warning them about their life as a church.
Brothers and sisters, what Jesus says about his church—and how Jesus evaluates his church must matter more to us than anything—and the letters we find in Revelation are not only to these ancient churches, but they are to us as well.
Before looking at one of these letters, let me offer you three observations about all of them:
Every letter, except one, includes a commendation from Jesus.
These commendations range from patient endurance to faithful obedience—these are the kinds of things Jesus commends. Only the final letter to the church in Laodicea contains no commendation. From this, we learn what Jesus honors in a church. Does he honor the largest attendance or the nicest building? If He does, then those should be our goals. But if not, then what does He care about—and do we commend the same things Jesus commends?
5 of the 7 churches are rebuked for sin and commanded to repent.
The sins include abandoning their first love, embracing false teaching, tolerating wickedness, slumbering spiritually, and living comfortably in an arrogant, independent, and apathetic state. What’s interesting is that those sins are present in churches that were first commended for some area of strength. So, just because a church is doing well in one area doesn’t mean that there isn’t some other area that needs to be addressed—this is undoubtedly true of us, brothers and sisters.
Each church is challenged to listen to what they’ve been told and then they’re given a promise if they respond to Jesus appropriately.
There are warnings for those who refuse to turn from their sin, but there are greater promises for those who respond in faith to the words of the Lord.
Now, let’s jump in and look at the last of the letters—to the church in Laodicea. Please follow along with me as I read our text:
(Revelation 3:14-22) “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation. “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and [salve] to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
Again friends, this is the only letter of the seven where the church is not commended for anything. But remember, it was not always this way, which means what has happened to this church could happen to us. The letter opens by establishing who it’s from:
(v.14) “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
The Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation—all of these refer to Christ. The evaluation of the Laodicean church that follows in verses 15-22 is not the mere opinion of a hired church consultant, and it’s not just the speculation of someone on the outside looking in. No, this is the infallible opinion of the risen Christ, who knows all things—who sees the true condition of every heart—and who shed his own blood to purchase the members of the church in Laodicea. What Jesus declares about this church is absolutely true. They better listen, and we better listen to what Jesus says.
1. A Startling Declaration (vv. 15-16)
(v.15-16) I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
In the letters written to both the Ephesian church and the Thyatiran church, Christ confronts each about their “works,” and in both cases, if you study the text closely, you’ll realize that the reference to their “works” refers specifically to their “work of evangelism” or we might simply say their “witness.” I think the same is true here. Jesus is confronting this Laodicean church about their witness. There’s a significant problem with their witness.
Now, was their problem similar to that of the Ephesian church? The Ephesian church enthusiastically embraced right doctrine but had abandoned their zeal to actually share that doctrine with others. Was the Laodicean problem more like that of the Thyatiran church, where they were passionate about sharing their faith but had allowed and even entertained immorality and false teaching within their church?
In one case Christ declared that they had “left their first love.” In the other he announced that they had “tolerated the women Jezebel.” You don't have to be a trained Bible scholar to understand that both of those are not exactly ringing endorsements! But friends, both of those evaluations are actually much better than what Christ declares about the Laodicean church. He says: “I know your works and based on what I know I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Now friends, Christ isn’t rushing to judgment here. He’s not simply stating what He thinks is true. Remember He is the One who sees the heart and knows the deepest condition of man, so what He declares is irrefutably true.
But what exactly is Christ saying here? Because this passage has been so misinterpreted by so many, let me first tell you what Jesus is not saying. He is not using hot and cold as a way of expressing the spiritual temperature of this church. He is not saying that they are neither on fire for God—expressed by “hot”—or that this church is somewhat aloof in their commitment to him—expressed by the use of “cold.”
In fact, if that were the meaning, it would ultimately imply that Christ is telling a group of sinful believers that He wishes they were not His children—“I don’t even want you anymore!” It would almost be as if Jesus Himself was announcing that he has run out of patience or become so fed up with His children that he is lamenting His own act of kindness in redeeming them. Brothers and sisters, I don't believe that is at all what Jesus is saying here.
Here’s the point I believe Jesus is making. We all know that hot things fulfill specific functions and purposes and so do cold things. You want an ice-cold glass of water on a scorching summer day because it’s refreshing, and you typically want your coffee or your hot chocolate (especially during a MN winter) to be piping hot.
I remember playing sports in high school and college and rolling an ankle and sometimes they would tell me to ice it and sometimes they would tell me to put heat on it. But I was never, ever told to find something as close to room temperature as I could and wrap my ankle in it. Why? Because it wouldn’t do anything. It would be pointless. It would be totally and completely ineffective. Friends, this is point of Christ’s analogy here:
Both hot and cold works bring about some sort of an effect. They are both useful, but something that is lukewarm is accomplishing nothing. Listen to theologian Sam Storms: “This is what Jesus has in mind; the church is being called to task... for the barrenness of its works. The church was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary, portrayed by the imagery of cold, nor healing for the spiritually sick, portrayed through the imagery of hot. The church was simply ineffective in every way and thus distasteful to the Lord.”
Friends, the reason Christ speaks so harshly to this church is because those who were claiming His name weren’t doing anything for His name. They apparently were unlike the other churches who all had issues but were commended for something. Here is a church that is completely failing, and God warns them of his impending judgment and discipline signified by the picture of being spit out of His mouth.
In fact, I want you to imagine a scene with me. Jesus Christ stands before the church in Laodicea and as he does, he picks up a cup and the contents of that cup are the works of the church of Laodicea. The members of the church are watching and waiting, wondering just how they will be commended after he drinks. Will he speak of his refreshment or perhaps he will find the drink comforting, but instead he takes his first drink and immediately he gags and vomits the contents out. This is a startling picture isn’t it? Friends, I can’t help but wonder: what would Christ’s reaction be if he were to drink from a cup filled with the works of Redeemer Bible Church?
2. A Delusional Evaluation (v. 17)
Frankly most people end here when they discuss the Laodicean church, but vs. 17 actually tells us exactly what their “lukewarm-ness” looked like:
(v.17) For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
What we find in vs. 17 is an obvious contrast. It is the difference between Christ’s analysis of this church and their own analysis of their church, and to be honest brothers and sisters, the reality of vs. 17 should cause us to stop in our tracks and think deeply about our own faith family. They evaluated themselves and said: We are rich, prosperous, and we need nothing. Jesus evaluated them and said: You are wretched, poor, blind and naked. In essence, they said, “we need nothing” and Jesus said, “you have nothing.”
Friends, do you realize that when Jesus looked at the Laodicean church and they looked at themselves, they literally saw the opposite. How does that happen? How could a church miss it that badly? How does a church come to believe they are healthy and flourishing when in fact, they are poor, blind, and naked?
I believe one of the keys, perhaps the key is found in the way vs. 17 is phrased. Notice the sheer number of first-person singulars in their claims, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.”
You see friends, God had no place in the lives or the stories of these men and women—and apparently, He had no central role in their life together as a church. In their minds they had it all together and they deserved the credit for what they had accomplished. One author (Storms) observed, “They had little sense of their utter dependence on God and proudly claimed to be spiritually rich, prosperous, and without need, all because of their own effort and self-sustaining achievement. They were living self-deluded lives, unaware of their true spiritual condition and out of touch with the source of all good.”
So, brothers and sisters, this must serve as a warning for us. How easily could we be seduced or deceived into thinking that we really are something, that we have it all together as a church. This is why it is so important that we be relentlessly committed to the Word of God, constantly holding it up and allowing it to serve as our standard. The church that ignores the Word will easily deceive itself.
What comes next in this letter is what I find most amazing. Think for a second about the scathing nature of this rebuke. So far Jesus has referred to spitting them out of His mouth and has also not-so-gently let them know that they have bought into their own lies about their spiritual condition and has referred to them as poor, blind, and naked. So the hammer has been coming down and at this point, you sort of expect the final blow to be delivered. But that’s not what happens, in fact, quite the opposite happens: verses 18-20 put on full display the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ who deals with this disobedient church as a kind and loving shepherd.
3. An Undeserving Invitation (vv. 18-20)
(v.18-20) I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lovingly counsels this deceived and sinful congregation. They wrongly thought they were already rich and Jesus reminds them here that they can indeed be rich, but it will only come through the confession of sin and His purifying power. That’s the only way they will ever know the true riches of Christ Himself.
I love the picture Grant Osbourne gives us. Speaking of Jesus' encouragement to “buy from him” in vs. 18, Osbourne writes, “The commercial nature of this verb is perfect for this city; they had ‘bought’ everything from earthly merchants and so had gone to the wrong ‘store’. Christ is the only source of good that will last, so they have to switch their broker from the marketplace to him.”
Not only was this group of erring believers being offered true riches, but Christ is also offering them the white garments of His pure righteousness to cover their shame and their nakedness. “The Laodiceans were walking about spiritually naked, not understanding their humiliation and needing the white robes of righteousness that could be purchased at no cost other than the acknowledgment of their shameful condition” (Mounce).
Oh friends, even though this church was spiritually poor and thought they were rich, and even though they thought they had everything but were really naked, you might be able to say that what is mentioned last in vs. 18 was actually the problem that lay underneath everything else. The text refers to their need for salve to anoint their eyes, so that they may see. This church was in desperate need of a reality check. As we have already seen, they were absolutely blind to their real spiritual condition and without the grace of God intervening and restoring their sight, they would have no hope.
John Stott reminds us: “Here is the welcome news for naked, blind beggars! They are poor; but Christ has gold. They are naked; but Christ has clothes. They are blind; but Christ has eyesalve. Let them no longer trust in themselves for all they have is inferior to Him. Let them come to Him! He alone can enrich their poverty, clothe their nakedness and heal their blindness.”
Brothers and sisters, what we have here in our text is a group of sinful men and women who have lost sight of God as the only source of good and have turned away from His grace to trust in themselves. So really, what we have, is a group of people just like us—men and women who are prone to wander, prone to put confidence in the things we have. But into our delusion, Jesus comes in power revealing to us our true condition. It’s painful for this to happen, but it’s also a undeniable act of his love and care.
(v.19-20) Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
I find it incredible that in light of everything we’ve come to understand about this church and how they are failing, Christ continues to pursue them in love—extending an underserving invitation to repent and be restored.
This is a church whose works and witness are useless. They are self-sufficient, self-congratulatory, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting and spiritually delusional. Yet, the merciful Shepherd—even though He has rebuked and disciplined them—invites them to repent.
Verse 20 does not have in view an unbeliever who needs to open up his heart to Jesus—who is just sort of helplessly knocking on the door of a sinner’s heart. No, friends, vs. 20 is an incredible picture of how deeply Christ loves his church. It is a glimpse of the patient and pursuing love of the Lord Jesus. Even when a church gets way off track—deceiving itself about its true spiritual condition—even when a church has become totally ineffective, Jesus is still knocking ready to restore his people. Friends, I think this text is a particular richness and sweetness for us. Aren’t you grateful that God doesn’t give up on his church, even in their darkest moments?
Notice now how this letter ends.
(v.21-22) The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
If you read through all the letters to the churches here, they end with mind-boggling promises for those who are faithful. Listen to GK Beale writing about this final promise: “Christ promises that if this church can overcome their idolatry and resist failing in their witness, they will inherit a ruling position with Him... they will be granted a ruling position in the everlasting kingdom, just as Christ was given by His Father.”
Friends, that promise is not just for the church in Laodicea, it’s also for the church in Minnetonka. By God’s grace let’s resist the urge to become complacent and ineffective, let’s never buy into our own hype, let’s work hard to remain totally dependent upon God, let’s stick close to the Word, and let’s remember that there is only one evaluation that really matters: What does Jesus think of us?
This sermon was first preached at Redeemer Bible Church on September 8, 2019.