The Dead Church – Sardis

About thirty-five miles south of Thyatira, lay the city of Sardis. We can read Jesus’ letter to this church in Revelation 3:1-6. Unlike His opening to the other churches, Jesus does not begin with any praise for Sardis. Instead, He jumps directly to the point: “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive-but you are dead. Wake up!” (vs. 1-2, NLT) The city of Sardis had a rather interesting past. Located on a high mountain precipice, the city considered itself impregnable. Yet, Sardis was actually conquered twice during the 550 B.C. to 220 B.C. span. Both times, an enemy scout scaled the mountainous walls and opened the city gates from the inside – while the population, feeling perfectly safe, was sound asleep. Jesus’ warning to the church would certainly remind the readers of their unfortunate history: “If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief.”

It’s interesting that Christ has no rebuke against the church’s teachings. Unlike the previous two churches, Sardis has remained doctrinally pure. But, at the same time, the church has become encumbered by cold, stagnant legalism – a type of “works” based on doctrinal dogma. “I know your works,” Jesus declares almost cynically. Yet the congregation is completely missing another, infinitely more vital, kind of “works.” Smugly self-satisfied in its doctrinal purity and dogmatic legalism, this church has ceased the works of mission and service! This is a church that no longer follows Christ’s great commission of going, serving, and sharing. Sardis has fallen utterly short of its calling: “I have not found your works perfect before God.” (vs. 2, NKJV). Of course, we all understand that works most certainly do not save us! We do not earn God’s favor with our actions or behaviors, but we can think of “works” like we think of a tree’s fruit. A tree doesn’t stay alive by producing fruit, does it? It stays alive by gathering nutrients through its underground root system. (We can think of daily prayer, Bible study, and reflection in Jesus’ presence as our underground root system.) The fruit, therefore, is merely a natural consequence of the tree’s root system being healthy and alive. Just so, works of service act as the church’s vital signs – they’re the pulse of the spiritual health of the body of Christ. And, in Sardis’ condition, the pulse has nearly flat-lined!

But, thank God, Jesus has a solution: “Go back to what you heard and believed at first; hold to it firmly” (vs. 3, NLT). Get back to the basics! Apparently, this church has become so encumbered with rigid legalism that they have lost sight of the most basic teachings of the Gospel. Jesus pleads with them to return to the starting point. For God so loved the world… (John 3:16). Salvation by grace through faith alone… (Eph. 2:8). Nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified… (1 Cor. 2:2). These tenants are the pillars of our faith! Everything else is just supporting material. Once the church’s message is recentered on the Good News about Jesus–once the root system is in place!–then, and only then, will the church will be re-energized to launch an effective ministry of service and outreach! As the old saying goes, “You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

I also want to be re-energized in my works of ministry and service! Don’t you? I plan to take some time this week to reflect on the health of my “root system” and renew my commitment to daily walk in Jesus’ presence. I hope you will join me.

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The Loveless Church – Ephesus

This week, we’re studying the letter to the first church of Ephesus as found in Revelation 2:2-7. As many know, the seven churches were located in seven prominent cities in the First Century Mediterranean area. Jesus sends a personal letter to each of these churches, giving them counsel, encouragement, and, in most cases, words of warning as well. The sequence of the churches actually follows the route that a mail carrier would have followed in the ancient Asia Minor world. The church of Ephesus is the first addressee on the list.

seven_churchesEphesus is a church that is doing a lot of things right. They patiently continue a work of ministry and outreach in the midst of difficult circumstances, and, perhaps most importantly, they “do not tolerate those who are evil.” More specifically, Jesus affirms the church for hating the “deeds of the Nicolaitans,” whose works Jesus also hates. We don’t know a lot about the Nicolaitans but it seems that they were a sect steeped in the heresy of Gnostiscm or “dualism.” Gnosticism was a philosophical/religious thought that purported that man’s nature was composed of two parts: the spirit (which is good) and the flesh (which is evil). Because the flesh was evil, they argued, then it didn’t matter what you did with it. You could live however you wanted in whatever kind of licentious lifestyle you fancied. There was no need to obey God’s law “in the flesh.” In his letter of 1 John, the Beloved Disciple of course argues vehemently against this kind of heretical thought: “If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth” (1 John 2:4, NLT). The church of Ephesus, then, has taken a bold stand against this satanic lie and has maintained its spiritual and doctrinal integrity, something which Jesus praises the church for.

But in spite of all the things that this church is doing right, they are also missing something very, very important. Christ warns, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place-unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). Whoa! Jesus means business here. Somewhere along the way, this church has missed out on the “love factor” – they’ve forgotten about the relationship! As a result, none of the correct doctrines, none of the “good works” matter one iota! Jesus is basically saying, “If you can’t bring the gospel message of love back into the picture, if you can’t restore the joy and intimacy of a personal relationship with Me, then it would actually be better if you didn’t even exist as a church!” Ephesus is a church that has forgotten its true identity and purpose – to share the love of Christ with each other and with the community in which they live. But, fortunately, Jesus provides the solution: “Repent! Go back to the starting point of repentance and forgiveness. Go back to before you were so arrogant in your ‘good works’ and self-satisfied with your ‘monopoly on the truth.’ Go back to the foot of the Cross.

I am reminded today of that first work of repentance as well as the eternal truth of Love and its calling on my life. How sad to think that this church could work so hard and so diligently protect its spiritual integrity and yet miss out on the most important truth of all! I think this paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 from The Message aptly sums everything up:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

John 19 – The Cross

Hi there — this is Cece from Dallas First Church. I am so excited to share some highlights from our Stepping Stones class. This week’s study of John 19 brings us to the foot of Calvary. As I prepared for the study this week, I was overwhelmed with the unfathomable depth of the chapter before us. And we had such a short amount of time to discuss it all! That said, let’s jump right in!

Chapter 19 ushers in the astounding conclusion to John’s narrative of Jesus’ life. So many of the beautiful symbols we have discussed in John’s Gospel all meet their fulfillment in Christ’s self-sacrificing death. We see Jesus as the “the Lamb of God” who acts as our Passover Lamb and “who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). We see Jesus as the Father’s gift of love to fallen humanity (Jn. 3:16).  We see Jesus as the Living Bread which was torn and broken for “the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). And we see Jesus lifted up “as the serpent in the wilderness” to take into Himself the curse of our sin-sick world. Paul tells us in  2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In all of these things, Christ was our Substitute for the death we deserved. He took upon Himself the unutterable horror of the world’s guilt and bore the excruciating separation from the Father. Can you even imagine? Christ who had lived in such close communion and fellowship with the Father would now feel the agony of complete separation from his beloved Dad. That’s what killed Him. It broke His heart:

But it was not the spear thrust, it was not the pain of the cross, that caused the death of Jesus. That cry, uttered “with a loud voice” (Matthew 27:50; Luke 23:46), at the moment of death, the stream of blood and water that flowed from His side, declared that He died of a broken heart. His heart was broken by mental anguish. He was slain by the sin of the world. (The Desire of Ages)

As Jesus died in triumph over sin, however, he cried out, “It is finished!” Notice the intriguing correlation with Genesis 2:1-3: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” Look at the unmistakable link between God’s work of creation and His work of salvation! And, intriguingly enough, both of these concepts are intimately connected with the beautiful Sabbath promise which God has given us! While we completely respect the position of others who may disagree, we believe that the Sabbath is a reminder that we rest in the work that God has performed! “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10, NIV). It is our reminder that we have absolutely nothing to bring to the table; we can only accept what He has done for us – we accept His sacrifice for us! And that’s exactly what John would want us to see.

Friends, as we close, I just want to say how convicted I have been lately that there is absolutely no way that we can get too much of Christ and His sacrifice for us! There’s no way that we can talk too much about it, sing too much about it, think too much about it! I’m telling you, that’s where it’s at! Having said all this, please take some time to prayerfully read the paragraph below:

The spotless Son of God hung upon the cross, His flesh lacerated with stripes; those hands so often reached out in blessing, nailed to the wooden bars; those feet so tireless on ministries of love, spiked to the tree; that royal head pierced by the crown of thorns; those quivering lips shaped to the cry of woe. And all that He endured—the blood drops that flowed from His head, His hands, His feet, the agony that racked His frame, and the unutterable anguish that filled His soul at the hiding of His Father’s face—speaks to each child of humanity, declaring, It is for thee that the Son of God consents to bear this burden of guilt; for thee He spoils the domain of death, and opens the gates of Paradise. He who stilled the angry waves and walked the foam-capped billows, who made devils tremble and disease flee, who opened blind eyes and called forth the dead to life,—offers Himself upon the cross as a sacrifice, and this from love to thee. He, the Sin Bearer, endures the wrath of divine justice, and for thy sake becomes sin itself. (The Desire of Ages, p. 755)