In past weeks we have looked at the process through which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the lens of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian believers in Eph 3. After that, for the last couple of weeks, it seemed advisable to ask ourselves the question, “What if we fail to follow Jesus?” What if we resist the transforming work of God’s Spirit that moves us from following the dictates of our old nature to embrace our new nature? And we saw the inherent dangers of that path…either a life lived in a false hope of salvation or a life lived under the chastisement of God, miserable, disheartened, and joyless until we come to a place of repentance and restoration. This week and next week we want to look at this question from a broader perspective…what are the consequences of a church that fails to follow Christ? And what are the consequences of a society…a culture…, not only failing to follow Christ but actively undermining and rejecting the teachings of Christ and the things of God? The church is called to be the Body of Christ in the world; the very representation of His Person and Will. When a church chooses to ignore His teachings and resist His calling, it compromises its ability and responsibility to be salt and light in the world…acting to preserve and illuminate the hearts of men.
The letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 provide some sobering examples of how churches can go astray and compromise their witness and effectiveness in the world. The letters, by and large, describe churches that are doing some things well, but failing in other matters…areas where they are falling sway to the dictates and ideas of the world around them or failing to maintain their passion for God and the things of God. Only two of the seven churches addressed are shown to be faithfully following Jesus and in need of no admonishment; those are the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia. Three others, the churches of Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, while faithful in some things, are tolerating destructive doctrines and experiencing a lack of heart and passion. The remaining two, Sardis and Laodicea, stand under judgment and in need of complete repentance.
The churches of Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira are churches that are persevering…holding to the things they have been taught and walking uprightly. In Rev 2:2ff. Jesus tells that Ephesian church, “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; 3 and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.” That is high praise from the Lord Himself. We would be proud and comforted to hear those words said about Ocean View Baptist Church from the lips of our Lord. But He goes on to say, “But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” This is, I would submit, the initial point of failure for the believer or the church…we leave our first love. Instead of reflecting on God’s great love for us and responding in kind, we let ourselves be distracted. And it is a distraction that can appear from many different sources. We can be distracted from our love for Jesus by the attractions of the world…by the voice of Satan saying, “All these things I will give to you” Do you remember Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness in Matt 4? In his final temptation of Jesus, in vs 8ff., we read, “ Again, the devil *took Him to a very high mountain and *showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” If this was part of Satan’s plan to compromise Jesus, rest assured it is part of his plan to compromise us also. But we can be distracted from our first love by other things as well…things that could be considered good and “godly” things…our work, our ministries, our past times. Our love for God can be diminished by our clinging to “lesser loves”; the love for family and friends. How often do we see someone compromise their faith and witness because they can not bring themselves to risk a relationship they value more highly than pleasing and obeying Christ? A mother who can not…will not… say the hard, but necessary, things to a beloved son or daughter for fear of losing that relationship? Or a husband that will not take a stand for Christ because it could be an offense to his wife and cause him to lose the affections of the one he loves. Or even something as simple as a refusing to correct a brother or sister for fear of offending them or causing them pain…
That is why Jesus says, in Matt 10:37 “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. If our heart is not to choose Jesus over all things, we find ourselves having “lost our first love”. That is why He goes on in verse 38 and states the underlying principle…”And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” You see, beloved, when we lose our first love…our love for God…it opens the flood gates for all manner of sin and compromise. We will come to value the opinion of the world more highly than the opinion of God. It will be all to easy to practice and embrace the things we love rather than the things that God loves. And it will become almost impossible to “lose our lives for His sake”…we will be unwilling to make that sacrifice. We see this same truth being played out in Jesus letters to the churches.
In writing to the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira, Jesus commends them for standing fast in difficult times and holding to the faith. He says to the church at Pergamum in 2:13, “ I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; and you hold fast My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days of Antipas…”. And to the church at Thyatira, “I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first.” Much like Ephesus, they were standing firm, upholding the faith and doing godly deeds. How could these churches be in danger? In the case of Pergamum, He writes, “ But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. 15 So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” And to Thyatira, He writes, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.”
While we have insufficient time to delve into the specifics of these heresies, in both cases the churches tolerated the teachings of false religion and practices…things that led to unlawful and immoral behavior and thinking. Notice that in both cases, the tolerance of these practices led to more and more of God’s people being “led astray” into these practices…the tolerance became a”stumbling block” to the people of God. Beloved, we do a false kindness when we fail to correct sin in the church. When, in the name of unity…or tolerance…or love…or acceptance…we allow sin to remain unaddressed and uncorrected in the church, we do a tremendous disservice to our brothers and sisters whom we claim to love.
Paul addresses this in 1 Cor 5:1ff. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. 2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst… Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? 7 Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened “ You can not have just a little bit of leaven in a loaf…it ends up permeating the entire loaf. So, too, does “a little bit of sin” permeate the entire church! Now, please understand that we do not become self appointed “sin police”, but rather that our love for God and for our brothers and sisters leads us to care deeply about our own holiness, our brother’s holiness and the holiness of our church.
The inevitable result of failing to follow Christ as a church is that we lose our first love and find ourselves listening to other voices and other authorities. We go to secular “self help” books for answers to our problems or religious charlatans proclaiming “name it and claim it” or “this is your best life, now”.It leads to a progressive coldness and disregard for the Word of God and a greater reliance on human philosophy and thought. It takes us to a place where we allow the world to define our mission and values instead of our Father who loves us and and reveals Himself to us. It leads us to become like the church at Sardis, or Laodicea. Listen to Jesus words to them.
In Rev 3:1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.
And in verse 14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”
Beloved, how does this happen? We know that these churches did not start out this way…what happened? A loss of first love…a tolerance of sin and indifference to holiness…a disregard for God’s Word and an elevation of worldly “authorities” and viewpoints. In Sardis, you have a picture of a last few and dim embers of what was once a vibrant faith…or a body on the brink of death, on it’s last breaths. They are called to “wake up” and pay attention…strengthen and increase the little that remains. There are a few…only a few…that have remained faithful and walk with Jesus in unstained garments. In Laodicea the picture is one of ambivalence…uncaring; with no awareness of their need for God. They do not care enough to rebel against God or to follow Him…to love Him or to hate him. What an epitaph…”you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”
Paul, at the end of his life, writing to his beloved coworker and friend, Timothy, addresses this same issue…this bleak reality… in two separate passages. One is in 2 Tim 4:3ff. And the other is in 2 Tim 3:1ff. Both are talking about the state and activities of the church, not the world. In the first, he says, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”…the very things we have been talking about.
When we turn away from God’s desires, we turn to our own. Or, to use that phrase that has now become rather familiar to us…we fail to follow Jesus. Beloved we see this all around us…perhaps even in churches we have been part of. The second passage is a warning to Timothy, and ourselves, as to what the church will face in its midst …masquerading as true belief… holding to a “form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the legacy of failing to follow Jesus…
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. 2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, 4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.
And I would add, in the grace and mercy of God, “Let us not be such men as these.”
Let us pray