A while ago there was a lot on the news about an IKEA store coming to Winnipeg. As I saw what they were planning and the size of the investment in buildings and also in city infrastructure, I was thinking that it was a huge risk and a huge investment without any guarantee of success. How do we know that the store will make it? I know that some of you hope so, but we also know that there are large stores and even malls that have been leveled because they couldn’t make it. What was the name of the mall on the west end of Portage Avenue in Winnipeg? The only way that we will know that it succeeds is if after it is built there are lots of customers.
The church of Jesus Christ is in a much better position! Investing in the church of Jesus is also a risk and involves a huge investment. It is vulnerable in so many ways. The church could be destroyed by persecution and other enemies from without. It could be destroyed by affluence and apathy or other enemies from within. How do we know it will succeed? About this there is no doubt. We know that the church will succeed! God has promised that His work will not return empty. But as we contemplate that promise, we might well ask, “what about our church?” We know that the church of Jesus Christ will succeed, but we don’t know whether or not our church will continue to grow and be healthy.
This morning, I would like to invite you to look at a number of Scripture passages which encourage us with the assurance of God’s promise that His church will succeed and a number of other passages which show us the conditions under which our church can be a part of that promised victory. Our primary focus today will be on two passages – Matthew 16:13-18 and Revelation 2, 3.
In both of these passages we have the great promise of God that His church will prevail!
One day when Jesus was walking along with his disciples in the remote region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They were able to answer because they had been listening to what people were saying. Everyone agreed that Jesus was someone special. Some thought that he was John the Baptist come back to life. Others thought he was Elijah who had been one of the greatest prophets and miracle workers in their history. Others thought he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. They all recognized something unique in him.
When he asked them the same question it was Peter who answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed this answer and acknowledged that it did not come from human understanding, but from a revelation of God. He further indicated that the church would be built upon the confession which Peter made, as the first one to recognize who Jesus really was.
The confession of Jesus as Lord is the foundation of the church. With this confession we understand that Jesus is the one who has earned the highest position in all creation by his willingness to die and by the power demonstrated in His resurrection. What a solid foundation! Jesus is the one sent from God, the Son of God and the one who died and rose.
Anyone who has been involved in building knows that a solid foundation is critical and if the foundation is solid, the building will stand against anything. The foundation of the church is Jesus and that foundation is solid.
On that foundation Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
The gates of Hades is a reference to death and the power of evil. Jesus was saying that death would not overcome the project in which he was engaged. Death has stopped many projects, but death could not stop God’s project. When Jesus died, that was not the end. Resurrection demonstrated this power of God in Jesus Christ and because of that we have the confidence that the project of Jesus, to build His church, will not be overcome ever. If death could not overcome Jesus, there is nothing which will defeat the building of His church. What a guarantee! What a promise!
This promise has been powerfully fulfilled already in human history. The persecution of Nero, the evil violence of Stalin and the restrictions of Mao have not been able to stop the growth of the church of Jesus Christ.
William Barclay says, “…this phrase triumphantly expresses the indestructibility of Christ and His church.”
Similar promises are also given in Revelation 2, 3. In some ways Revelation expands on this promise. In these chapters we have letters from God written to seven churches in Asia Minor. Each message to these seven churches has a similar pattern and part of the pattern is a word of introduction from the one who speaks to them, from Jesus Himself.
If we look at the words used to describe Jesus we see once again the amazing truths which give us assurance that since the church is founded on Jesus Christ, it has a solid foundation.
Please turn to this passage in your Bibles and look at some of these statements. In 2:7 we read of the one who has the authority to “give the right to eat from the tree of life…” This is a reference to what happened in the Garden of Eden when because of sin Adam and Eve were removed from the garden and an angel guarded the tree of life so that no one would be able to eat from it and live forever in their sin. Jesus, however, has made eternal life a possibility and He is the one who can give that eternal life to all who come to Him. In 2:8 we read that He is “the First and the Last.” This same verse reminds us that Jesus is the one “who died and came to life again.” We see something of the authority of Jesus in the phrase in 2:12 which speaks of “him who has the sharp, double edged sword.” There are many other phrases including the powerful expression in 3:7 which speaks of “…him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open.” We see in these expressions all kinds of truths which remind us of the power, position and authority which Jesus has as the head of the church.
This Jesus who has such authority and power cares about the church and is most concerned for the building of the church. Revelation 2:1 encourages us that Jesus “walks among” the churches. And as He walks among the churches, we hear another comforting word when we read the repeated phrase, “I know.” Jesus knows what is going on in each church. Jesus knows what is going on in our church. But even more encouraging is the phrase in Revelation 3:9 which tells us the attitude with which Jesus knows what is happening in the church. It assures us, “I have loved you.”
The image which presents itself to us in Revelation 2, 3 is a practical illustration of the fulfillment of the promise, “I will build my church.” It is one of the most important truths that any Christian should know. The church is God’s project. The church is the bride of Christ. The church is His special love and He will do all that He can to build His church and we have the assurance that He will succeed. When all of history is over, the United Nations will not exist, the International Monetary Fund will not be needed, but the church of Jesus Christ will judge the nations and will rejoice in the great banquet which has been promised and will exist for all eternity in the presence of God.
Any person making investments is always looking for those investments which have the best chance of success. You can’t have any better promise of success than the church. Therefore, we are encouraged to give our lives for the building of the church.
The first church in which I was pastor was called Neighborhood Life Group. We met across from the railway station in The Pas, Manitoba. That congregation does not exist anymore. Where is the promise which we have just looked at? If God says “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” why do we hear about church closures?
I think we understand that although the church of Jesus Christ will never be overcome, individual churches might be overcome. What about our church?
Both of the passages we are looking at today mention that there is an enemy of the church. Matthew speaks of the “Gates of Hades” and Satan is mentioned five times in these two chapters in Revelation. The promise of God is very clear that that enemy will not succeed in overcoming the church, but, what about individual churches? What about our church?
It is possible for an individual church to fail.
Several times in Revelation 2, 3 we hear such a warning. To the church in Ephesus the Spirit says in Revelation 2:5, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” David Ewert says, “There is something ominous about this threat. It implies that no church is secure. When the lamp of love stops burning, there may still be a church building, but the church has ceased to exist, her lamp stand removed.”
A similar warning is given to the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:16, which says, “I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
These are very scary statements. They show that although the church of Jesus Christ will not fail, individual churches may be in jeopardy. They warn us that we cannot rest on our history; we cannot rest on our wealth or our supposed faithfulness. It means that we must remain vigilant.
It should cause us to reflect very seriously on the possibility that our church may be in danger. It should cause us to ask what the conditions are which could result in a church being removed or being spit out of God’s mouth. In the messages to the seven churches we can very easily and quickly discover what kind of churches are in danger of failure.
In looking at what causes the failure of a church, it is interesting to see what does not cause failure. We note that persecution does not cause failure and we note that poverty does not cause failure. The church in Smyrna is one of the two churches which are not seriously warned. In 2:9 we read that this church was experiencing persecution and was also living in poverty. Although they were encouraged to be faithful, it is clear that the persecution and the poverty were not current dangers to imminent failure. What then are the dangers which could cause a church to fail? What we discover are four warnings in these chapters.
The church in Ephesus was in danger because, as Revelation 2:4 says, “you have forsaken your first love.” As we read this warning, we need to read it in the context of all the good things that this church was doing. They were a hard working church. They persevered under difficult situations. They hated “wicked men” and were against false teachers. These sound like good things, but the warning is so severe that for failure at this one point God was ready to remove the church from its place! Therefore we need to think carefully about what it means to lose our first love and to examine our church to see if perhaps we have also lost our first love.
Some suggest that the love spoken of here is love of the believers for one another. Others suggest that it is love for God that is meant. Beasley Murray, who believes that it refers to love of the believers for one another says, “Where love for God wanes, love for man diminishes, and where love for man is soured, love for God degenerates into religious formalism…” This is a point well taken. Is it really possible that if we do not love one another we are in danger of failure as a church?
I have always understood it to refer to love for God. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he indicated that the first was to love God and the second was to love others. There is no doubt that the two must be connected and both must be active, but in this context it seems that love for God is intended because of the mention of the “first” love.
It is possible for a church to get very busy in the work of the church, but to do so out of duty rather than out of a deep love for God. It is possible for a church to have a very clear orthodoxy, but desire truth for its own sake rather than because of a love for God. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between churches that have activity and orthodoxy without love and those that have these things out of love, but eventually it shows.
How do we know if we have that first love? David Ewert says that this, “…should not be read to mean that Christians should try to retain the feelings that accompanied that initial experience of committing their lives to Christ.” Moffat helps us by suggesting that “the way to regain this warmth of affection is neither by working up spasmodic emotion nor by theorizing about it…but by doing its duties.” These comments help us understand that love for God does not need to be the love of a newly married couple, but can be the love of a couple who have been married for a long time. Such love is characterized by faithfulness, commitment, passion, accompaniment and peace. Do we have such love for God in this church?
The second thing which could cause church failure is false teaching. The church in Pergamum was warned, in Revelation 2:14, “You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam.” They are also warned in Revelation 2:15 about those “who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” We don’t know exactly what these teachings were, but the warning against false teachers is worth thinking about.
What does it take to be certain that we are not in danger because of false teaching? There are three things which we need in order to avoid the danger of the absence of truth. We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit. When the church in Acts had a debate about theological truth, they came to the end of that debate by being able to conclude, “…it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” They watched what God was doing, they listened to what the Spirit was saying and they were able to discern the truth by that. We also need to wisely and carefully discern the Word of God. II Timothy 2:15 speaks about one who “correctly handles the word of truth.” We need to be careful that we do not use the Bible as a proof text for our ideas, but rather that we carefully listen to what the whole Bible is saying. We need to respect the Word of God as exactly that, the Word of God. Another way in which we can discern what is false is in conversations in the church. One of the great strengths we have as Anabaptists is the commitment to interpreting the Bible in community. May we learn to do that interpretation well, wisely and with grace just like the early church did in Acts 15.
Once again as we recognize that false teaching may be a danger for the church, we need to ask about our church, “how are we doing?”
The third warning comes from the word to the church in Thyatira which was being influenced by someone whom the author calls “Jezebel.” This is likely a reference to the evil queen of Israel in the Old Testament who led the people into all kinds of immorality. The Spirit warns this church, “…she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”
Holiness means single minded purity. Idolatry is unholy because it divides the mind between worshipping God and worshipping idols. Sexual immorality is unholy because it divides human relationships. There are other things which could be described as the absence of holiness. Any church which is not walking in the holiness appropriate to a church which belongs to God is in danger. David Ewert says, “…if the church compromises with the world to the point where there is little difference between the church and the world, it can no longer exercise a saving influence on its culture.”
You may have seen the cartoon in the last issue of The Messenger. That is the kind of thing that we need to be careful of.
Is there holiness in our church body or are we in danger?
The last two churches which are warned are the church in Sardis and the church in Laodicea. It seems to me that in both of these churches, which are very severely warned, the problem, although expressed in different ways is very similar. The church in Sardis is warned in Revelation 3:1, “you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” The church in Laodicea is warned in Revelation 3:15, “…you are lukewarm.” Many have suggested that cold means spiritually cold and hot means spiritually hot, but it is hard to imagine that God would prefer someone being spiritual cold to being spiritually lukewarm. A better interpretation is to understand that cold water is good and hot water is good, but lukewarm, tepid water is not good. The freshness of spiritual vitality and the zeal of spiritual passion are what God seeks, not the meaningless spiritual life which is careless and empty.
What both of these images suggest is the danger of the absence of life. Ewert says, “There were works, but they were empty shells, routine duties without spirit.” Beasley Murray says, “The Laodiceans do not reject the gospel of Christ, nor do they affirm it with joy. They maintain it without conviction, without enthusiasm, without reflection on its implications for life.” The spiritual life of any church cannot and must not be lived out of the strength of human power or desire or the pleasure of human company. The church which will stand is the church in which the life of God is present. If the life of God is not desired and not present that church soon becomes lukewarm and eventually dies.
These are serious warnings written to the churches. I have wondered and don’t know the answer to the question, “where are these specific churches today?” That would be a matter to satisfy our curiosity but we have a much more important matter to attend to. We need to look at our own church and ask the Spirit what He would say to our church. Would the Spirit indicate that there is an absence of love, an absence of truth, an absence of holiness or an absence of life in this congregation? Do we really want to know? Do we have the courage to ask the Spirit these questions? Do we even have the courage to ask one another these questions?
The situation, however, is not hopeless even if we find that we are in danger. The path to life is through repentance and in Revelation 2:5; 2:16; 2:21; 2:22; 3:3; 3:19 such a call is given. To repent is to agree with God. It is to say, “Yes, there is an absence of love, truth, holiness or life in our church.” Repentance is no glib matter. It requires serious reflection, firm agreement with God and determined commitment to change direction.
Marva Dawn says, “His call to repentance is a sign of His continuing grace and constant opportunity to be restored in relationship with Him.” “The Spirit keeps talking with us and inviting us to hear Christ. Repentance cleans out our ears!”
The Spirit says in Revelation 3:20, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”