In the previous article, we were thinking about the Lord’s command to the churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2, 3 NKJV) to repent. Many have written capably and at length on the order and content of the seven letters, but we shall confine our studies to the exhortations about repenting and the specific complaints that the Lord advanced.
Before proceeding, we should call to mind Paul’s assertion, “Now all these things . . . are written for our admonition…” (I Cor. 10:11), and ask whether we agree with that. If we do, then we will see that there is a message that is relevant for the church today.
The Seven Letters
Two of the seven churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, received no mention of repenting. The former was commended for suffering for the Lord’s sake; the latter for faithfulness in spite of little strength. But in the other 5 letters, we find 8 references to the word “repent.” Let’s take a look.
The church at Ephesus (2:1 – 7) had much to be commended for, but had lost its first love. The Lord does not tell them, as we are often exhorted today, to stop focusing on “doing” and be more concerned about “being.” Rather, He advises them that genuine repentance and a rekindling of first love would be known by a return to “the first works.” A quick check of Acts 19, noting the willingness to sacrifice in the early days of the work, especially vss. 18-20, is instructive. The church had lost warmth and closeness in its relationship to the Lord, and needed to repent.
The church in Pergamum (2:12 – 17) struggled against Satanic activity, even witnessing the martyrdom of one brother. Yet the Lord protests against two forms of false doctrine that led to immorality and idolatry, and censures the church for not dealing with the problem. The church must repent, i.e., “turn around” in their passive tolerance for what the Lord hates.
The church in Thyatira (2:18 – 29) is commended for some excellent qualities, but has turned a blind eye to the roles God has established for His church, allowing a woman to teach and lead people astray while claiming to be a prophetess. Opportunity for repentance was offered to her and her followers but was not accepted, so the Lord reprimands the church.
The church in Sardis (3:1 – 6) is marked by hypocrisy, having a reputation for life but being known to the Lord for deadness. Its works do not testify of godliness but of lethargy. Repent, says the Lord to the church, by calling to mind your honored heritage, and realizing that the coming of the Lord is at hand.
The church in Laodicea (3:14 – 22) is sunk in materialism, blinded to its true condition. The Lord reminds it that His love and chastening go together, and are calculated to lead toward repentance. He then offers a promise of fellowship to any individual that will seek a relationship with Him.
Is it not plain that the things about which the Lord protested are not trivial but profoundly important – the heart of what the church is all about? Look again at the list of problems:
• Affection for the person of Christ diminishes.
• Faithfulness to Scripture and truth succumbs to what is popular.
• God-given roles for His people are sacrificed to “modern culture”
• A testimony of the abundant life gives way to mediocrity
• Contentment in the Lord is replaced with pride in worldly possessions
These things are affecting the church today. The adversary seeks to redefine worship as something mechanical and ritualistic, to cool the fervent spirit of fellowship with Christ and among believers. The bold preaching of sound doctrine can give way to sentimental homilies and preoccupation with money and shallow entertainment. Cold formalism with its form of godliness yet devoid of divine power results, as the church models itself after the world’s philosophy of “unisex” to make itself more attractive. Thankfully, this is not universal, but it is a growing danger.
Elders: Men Who Take a Stand
What hope does the church have when facing the predicted coming apostasy, or departure from the faith? One fact is sufficient: “Greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world!” (I John 4:4). Victory will come not by imitating the world, but by being different from it—Biblically different.
Let’s be practical about this. How can church elders see areas of need for a change of heart (repentance!)? Here are some diagnostic questions arranged in order of the letters considered that may spark discussion and prayer. You can add your own, as obviously, the list could be much longer.
Is the worship characterized by a warm spontaneity that marks the overflowing heart, or is it dull and routine, and critical of participation that is “not proper?” Do the saints love to be together and open their homes to one another and to visitors? Are prayer times well attended, mostly for prayer with enthusiastic praise for specific answers?
Is the teaching time in the church marked by messages that are manifestly the work of men who “labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17) presenting over time the whole counsel of God? Do the elders purpose that the feeding of the flock will eventually touch on all major Bible doctrines and give some acquaintance with all parts of Scripture? Is the church addressed as the “elect of God,” “holy and beloved,” or is it addressed as a mixed multitude? Are believers encouraged to be daily in the Word with the family? Are the elders courageous and willing to stand against those “whose mouths must be stopped” because they undermine families (Titus 1: 11)? Is there teaching and modeling by the older believers of the Biblical truths of headship, especially that the men are learning to lead and the women are supporting this work?
Is there heartwarming ministry on the coming of the Lord, and humble unity as all seek the mind of Christ together? Is the church’s approach to finances a good example to families of good stewardship, having a sacrificial involvement in missions – both home and abroad, and a spirit of contentment and thankfulness for what the Lord provides? Do the more mature believers prefer dedication to the assembly and its work rather than to lavish homes, travels and pleasures?
It’s a good thing when elders can even begin to inquire if the subject is relevant locally. Coming to personal exercise of heart precedes corporate concern and involves diligent prayer. Small steps can lead to larger ones as elders admit publicly when a particular decision was not wise and even ask forgiveness of the people. If the Spirit convicts about any of these major areas, perhaps in working through Rev. 2 and 3 together, the elders can lead toward repentance.
Beware of making it a complex matter! The Lord loves to forgive, and a simple admission of wrong and a request for help in putting the past away and depending on Him for the new direction being undertaken is sufficient. Experience has shown that rather than lowering esteem for the elders in the eyes of the people, such action increases respect for them, which is just another benefit of the good work of repentance in the church!