By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
For nearly a year now, I’ve been intrigued with the thought, ‘what should the Church look like?’ Some people say, “I’d like to find a New Testament church” but I would counter that question with, “Which one?”
There are no perfect churches anywhere; Paul’s letters to early congregations were written to address problems in each. Groups of believers in the Book of Acts may approximate most closely an ideal Church, but even they fell short, simply because they were made up of flawed human beings.
Revelation is a book I rarely delve into, and writing this I prayed not so much for knowledge of the details, but for understanding of the message. The first three chapters in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, contain words of commendation, condemnation and challenge concerning seven early churches. The pastor of the churches was the apostle John, who’d been exiled to the Isle of Patmos because of his preaching and his earlier association with Jesus. Elderly and isolated, he received a visit from his Lord and then as best he could wrote the amazing revelation of Jesus.
The first verses of chapter 1 indicated it would be a forth-telling of the Word of God, a prophecy. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee the future, but rather the outcome depends on how the listener responds. For example when Jonah preached destruction to the city of Nineveh, the prophecy did not come to pass because the people repented and God’s judgment was stayed.
Revelation 1 expresses an awesome vision of the resurrected Christ. Messages I’ve heard on these passages are generally negative, but a careful reading should encourage us that Jesus first mentioned something good about each church. Rather than criticize our local churches, it would be more productive to find their good traits and build them up.
Next, Jesus brought to light the shortcomings of five of the seven churches. Philadelphia, the Faithful Church, received no condemnation. Another, Smyrna, had been through tribulation and poverty which probably to them seemed a bad thing – yet it had kept their faith focused and strong, and they also received no criticism. The other five stood accused of sins which might be typical failings in any age.
When reading through the listing of faults, it is important to realize God’s Word is not just for a moment in time, and not just for churches. Individuals have fallen short in these same ways, but those who want to please God will respond with acknowledgement and repentance. Wrapping up each section is a challenge and a reward if the churches are motivated to change their ways.
There are also sobering words for those who once knew the way and lost their lamp stand, or the light of Christ within, or had their name erased from the book of life.
I would challenge readers to make a chart of the commendations, condemnations, challenges and rewards for each church in the first three chapters of Revelation. The seriousness of the failings is humbling, but the grace and promise of Christ are more than enough to help us overcome. To all who exercise our will, He will be our strength.