[Note: This blog is the penultimate part of a series .]
At the end of the previous section of this series, we asked what specific warnings God had for the Church of God if they neglected the obligation of love and outgoing concern and compassion for brethren in light of the serious judgment given even to Gentile peoples for these same sins in the absence of either a covenental relationship with God or of the Holy Spirit. It stands to reason, based on the biblical principle that from him (or her) to whom much is given, much is expected (Luke 12:48). Those who know their master’s will and do not do it will be beaten with many stripes and will face much tribulation, unless they repent. None of us are immune from this judgment, certainly not in our present evil age. The larger question is, what do we do about it? What specific judgment do we face as part of the Church of God if we fail to act with the godly knowledge written on our hearts and minds?
One of the most concentrated areas of warning for the Church of God is in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Of the seven cities discussed in these chapters, which sit in a horseshoe pattern in what is now western Turkey, and formerly were all cities and towns in the Romance province of Asia, two of the cities are given no condemnation. Smyrna (now Izmir) is praised for its faith and told it will endure martyrdom but receive the gift of eternal life (see Revelation 2:8-11), and Philadelphia, though a small city with but a little strength, is praised for its faith and for its possession of the Key of David (see Revelation 3:7-13) . It is perhaps noteworthy, given the fact that Philadelphia means “City of Brotherly Love” and that the city was founded by a brother of a king of Pergemos whose love for his brother was legendary, that this city is told that it possesses the key of David. Given that David is praised most of all for being a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), the combined context would indicate that it was the love of the brethren of Philadelphia that distinguished them from the other churches and set them apart as pillars in the temple of God.
In that light it is worth examining what warnings Jesus Christ gives for the congregations of Ephesus, Pergemos, Thyatira, and Sardis, all of which receive praise as well as warnings. Jesus’ warning to Ephesus is given in Revelation 2:4-5: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 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.” Jesus’ warning to Pergemos is given in Revelation 2:14-16: “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.” Jesus’ warning to the church at Thyatira is in Revelation 2:20-23: “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.” Finally, the warning to the church at Sardis is given in Revelation 3:1-3: “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you.”
In looking at these warnings, there are a few patterns that can be seen. For one, the brethren of Ephesus are told that they have left their first love. This is a serious problem, and unless they repent and turn their hearts to God, God promised to remove their lampstand. Pergemos and Thyatria are given warnings about sexual immorality, which is itself a notable example of a problem of the heart that is all too familiar for us in this present age. Sardis is told to be watchful and strengthen what remains, as its hearts were not fully loyal to God. The heart is something that can easily be taken for granted, and our lamentable and consistent patterns of self-deception tend to make us feel as if our hearts are far closer to God than may be the case, whether it is because we do not pay close attention to what God really requires of us, because we compare ourselves to others rather than develop deep personal relationships with God and with our brethren, or because we have been blinded by the cares of this world, and our hearts filled with unprofitable concerns that crowd out the love we should show to God and other people, or some other similar reason.
As I began to write this series almost a week ago, I came across an anonymous letter written pointedly but graciously about this similar problem of a lack of heart knowledge about God’s way demonstrated through our actions towards others. The author of this letter wrote the following: “If we don’t listen (and more importantly, act), the consequences will be the most severe we could imagine. It’s pretty obvious which era of the church we’re in if we’re really honest. And if we’re honest, it’s also clear that no one is exempt from this truth, no matter how much hot air everyone seems to expend claiming they are really part of a different era. While all the messages to the churches in Revelation are relevant to us, we should pay particular heed to the one that addresses our current era. What would a church look like that was full of people who are so pleased with their understanding of God’s way, who think they are so enlightened and wonderful, and yet are truly wretched individuals? It would look exactly like what we have now, with groups full of people who think their group is the only true church, that their group leader is third in line under Christ, and who disdain anyone else by either ignoring them (at best) or by actively disparaging them (at worst). And let’s not pretend there are only a couple of “extremist” groups that do this. The attitude is widespread. Our Father warns us that if we don’t fix ourselves, He will forcibly remove us from being His people. It is just that serious, and we are playing with fire the longer we continue in the current arrangement and pretend everything is okay. It’s not okay .”
What the author politely hinted at let us say bluntly. While all of the warnings to the Church of God are worth paying attention to, we most need to pay attention to the warnings to the Church at Laodicea, because it is obvious where we stand with God and with our fellow brethren in the Church of God at this time, and all of the puffery and rhetoric and hot air that we can expend will not allow us to escape the severity of the warning that is written in Revelation 3:15-20: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore 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 dine with him, and he with Me.”
Are we not proud of our riches and also our intellectual knowledge about God’s laws and God’s ways? Do we not believe ourselves self-sufficient and with no need of any further study of the Bible because we already know everything that we need for salvation? Are we not lukewarm and tepid, lacking a fire against the evils within and around us, lacking a deep love and concern for our brethren and even for those who face God’s judgment because of societal wickedness? Where is the compassion for those who suffer because of the brokenness of our world? Where is the love and concern for our brethren, where is the love for our husbands or wives, our parents and children, or for the outcasts and strangers in our congregations, that we may be one family united in love and encouragement? When we boast about our supposed knowledge about God’s laws and God’s ways, or our prophetic insight about the state of the world or of the soon-coming return of Jesus Christ, is the world around us able to recognize in us the love that Christ said would be the sign of His people? Or do we not bicker and squabble and parade ourselves proudly just like all the other hypocrites and sinners which abound around us? Where is our humility? Where is our repentance? Where do we apologize to those whom we have wronged, and seek both their mercy and God’s, that we may be restored to good relations with our brethren and our Creator, and that our sins and faults and blunders, which are many, may be forgiven and no longer held against us? Where is our mercy to others who apologize to us and seek to be forgiven? Where is our love, where is our tenderness, where is our gentleness, where is our patience, where are the fruits of the Holy Spirit that we claim is within us, which binds us to every believer who now lives, has ever lived, or ever will live as brothers and sisters in the Family of God? How can we be anything but Laodicean, seeing what we are and how we conduct ourselves?
It is telling that many of the warnings that God gives to the Churches of God in Revelation 2 and 3 were given originally to the Church of God in Corinth. We are accustomed to seeing the Church of God in Corinth as a particularly troubled and ungodly group of novice believers, and to look down on them with a sense of paternalistic arrogance, seeing ourselves far above them and wagging our finger at them as if we had room to stand in judgment against them for their sins. To be sure, the brethren of Corinth had many problems and difficulties, and yet these problems are our own, if we will only examine ourselves with an attitude of mourning and repentance, rather than a prideful ignorance of where we stand with God and with others. If we look within our own lives, or within our own congregations, what room do we have to condemn the brethren at Corinth for any of their sins? Let us count the ways we resemble Corinth.
Do we not glorify our knowledge, and the fact that we are not intellectuals like so many in the world, rather than glorify God for giving us understanding that we would not have known otherwise? As it is written in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” None of us has room for glory at the judgment seat of God, rather we can only have humility and gratitude that as broken and dishonored and weak and foolish as we are, that God made us whole and honorable and strong and wise through Jesus Christ, that we could be a model of His ways to a rebellious world.
Do we not have divisions and strife and sectarianism among us? We are a mockery for the fact that there are literally hundreds or even thousands of squabbling groups springing from the same belief system. I myself have personally and recently heard a coworker, unaware of my own background in the Church of God, who were themselves not religious at all gloat about the collapse of the Church of God and mock us in open contempt, and I could only listen in stony silence to the ridicule and contempt heaped upon me and my brethren. As it is written in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” Given the strife and division which so conspicuously exists among us, so that even irreligious people are aware of it, are we not carnal?
Does not sexual immorality run rampant in our churches? Where adultery and fornication, where shotgun marriages and clandestine affairs run rampant, can we avoid the sting of a rebuke like 1 Corinthians 5:9-13: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” Do we not live in an evil world where it would be impossible not to keep company with sinners and be in the world at all? Yet we boast in our tolerance for all kinds of sin among brethren as if it was a badge of honor that we were tolerant and above being offended by that which offends God. Where is our repentance for this?
Do we not see lawsuits and other legal squabbles among brethren? As it is written in 1 Corinthians 6:1-9a: “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life? If then you have judgments concerning things pertaining to this life, do you appoint those who are least esteemed by the church to judge? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers! Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” Why is there no one among the brethren who is seen as a just judge, capable of mediating the disputes from brethren? Must we embarrass ourselves and bring ourselves into open shame by going to court, by suing other brethren, or by wronging and cheating other brethren, by stealing from them or taking advantage of them? How can we be trusted to judge rebellious demons if we cannot successfully mediate the mundane conflicts and disagreements of this life?
Finally, are we not puffed out about our knowledge? As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3: “Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.” It is not in our knowledge that we please God, for such knowledge as we have comes from either our own reasoning, or the instruction of someone else through word or example. Our task is not to show off our knowledge as if we are anything special, as is common among us, but rather to build up others in love, to be sensitive to their consciences, to be gentle with their sensitivities, so that we may be unified in love? Are we so unified today? Are we concerned enough about others that we will restrain ourselves from conduct that we would be free to do because it bothers someone else? How often can it be said that we would rather be right with others than be right in our own eyes?
We have seen from the foregoing both that we are worthy of the same rebuke that Paul gave the church at Corinth under divine inspiration. We also see that as we are clearly living in an era of lukewarm affection, at best, for God and our brethren, that the warnings given to the church at Laodicea are of very pointed relevance to us today. None of us is immune from this rebuke, for we all need to repent and seek God’s mercy and seek forgiveness from others whom we have hurt and offended, and whom we may even hurt and offend in seeking forgiveness because the hearts of our brethren are so absent in love and grace towards us that even to reach out an olive branch of peace is to offend anew. What are we to do about this? If we see the justice in the rebuke of Paul and John towards us written in the Holy Scriptures for our benefit, what should our response be to this rebuke if we want to be made right with God and with our brethren? It is to this question that we will turn to next.
 See, for example: