Living Community
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

Living Community

One church appeared successful, but many members were morally lax. Another had compromised its values and was being absorbed by the surrounding culture. The churches in first-century Sardis and Laodicea were in difficulty, and Jesus’ words in Revelation 3 called them back to being the living communities He intended. As Alistair Begg explores these passages, we see that Christ extends grace to troubled churches, calling believers to repent and look to Him for hope and strength.

Series Containing This Sermon

Letters from the Risen Christ

A Study in Revelation 2–3 Revelation 2:1–3:22 Series ID: 24201

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let’s read the Bible. Revelation chapter 3 and the first six verses, and then from verse 14:

“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:

“‘These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you[’re] dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.

“‘Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never [erase] his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

And then verse 14:

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:

“‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I[’m] about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

“‘Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

“‘To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

Let’s pause just once again and, in a simple chorus from the old CSSM days, ask God’s blessing:

And now,

Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself and show me my Savior,
And make the Book live to me.[1]


In the material that was sent to me and to the other speakers—but the passage that relates directly to my task—I was directed as follows: “The Bible reader will expound the text but will also focus on Christ as revealed in the text.” “The Bible reader will expound the text and focus on Christ as he is revealed in the text.” What an immense privilege, to have the opportunity to take the Bible, to study it, and then to be able to share it with others, and in all of that to have our gaze turned again and again to the Lord Jesus! “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”[2] Therefore, it is an immense privilege for us. For of all the places we could be on this morning, all the circumstances that we might face, in the providence of God, he has ordered our steps—none of us is here by chance—in order that we might hear from the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself.

Now, I used that little chorus purposefully in prayer, asking that God would show himself to us in the reading of the Word. There is an inherent danger in it though. If you know it, or if you listened carefully as I said it, it says, “Make the Book live to me.” And the great, inherent danger in the study of the Bible is that we want to move immediately from our reading of the text to personal application.

And so, from time to time, especially in a small group context, after you’ve read a portion of Scripture like this, it’s not long before somebody in the group will say, “Let me tell you what this means to me”—which, of course, is of interest but is of secondary importance. Because what the individual may be about to say may actually be true to the text, may be actually helpful to the rest of the group, and in actual fact, it may be completely bizarre. And the only antidote, then, is to come to the text of Scripture not saying, “Let me tell you what this means to me,” initially, but coming to the Scripture saying, “Let me find out what this means.” And once I understand what it means in the context in which it has been delivered, then and only then may I begin to make points of personal application.

So it’s important for us this morning to recognize that what we’re dealing with here is history and geography, as real as any history and geography that we may have done for our GCSEs. We’re dealing with real churches in real places, real men and women, real families, living at a certain point in time. And from the passages we know that Jesus understands their condition, he understands their circumstances, and he writes to them expressly in the awareness of the context in which they’re living.

So, for example, all the way through, you will find, in each of the letters, Jesus is saying, “I know this.” In chapter 2, he says, “I know your deeds, I know your hard work, I know your perseverance.”[3] And again, in 2:13, he says, “I know where you live.”

The churches to whom these messages are addressed are first of all listed in 1:4. They’re referred to there. They’re listed in [verse] 11, I should say. And the way in which they’re listed would appear to be simply on the basis of the way in which a messenger would visit each of the churches. If they made the journey from where John was writing in Patmos, it would be about sixty miles across to Ephesus, which would be the closest point—therefore, the natural starting point. And if the person taking the messages went on foot in a northerly direction to Smyrna and then to Pergamum, then it would be only natural for them to come back in a southerly direction—indeed, they would have to—and visit the rest of the churches.

Now, in what way could it possibly be that here, as we sit in the twenty-first century, these messages, written to churches in the first century could be relevant to us this morning? After all, we come from such a variety of places, local churches scattered throughout the British Isles and beyond.

The great, inherent danger in the study of the Bible is that we want to move immediately from our reading of the text to personal application.

Well, it will be quickly apparent to us, I hope, as we read this and as we read for our homework in the rest of the days, that the specific issues which are addressed by the Lord Jesus via his messenger in these churches, the things that he’s talking to these first-century congregations about are timeless: men and women picked up with a sense of triumphant expectation; men and women dealing with failures in the experience of their Christian pilgrimage; people who have begun very well sliding into laziness; congregations that were once known for their vibrancy and their genuine commitment to Christ and his people suddenly becoming dreadfully complacent, and there is a doldrum effect among them, and they need someone to come and speak directly to them and call them again to account. All of those things—which are specifics, as you will see, and we will find in these studies—all of those things are not unknown to us this morning. And indeed, some of us are painfully aware of the issues that we’ve left behind. And so the mail comes, first to these first-century congregations and then to us.

I’m not generous enough to give every member of my family their own email account. Maybe it’s less expensive here. But as a Scotsman, it’s very hard for me, you know, to part with money. And we’re the ones who invented the limbo dance, incidentally: it was a man in Glasgow trying to get into a pay toilet without putting the money in. But I haven’t given each of my children their own account. And so, consequently, there is an interface between us and between my wife and myself.

And we had a significant discussion just last week, when I had gone in inadvertently and deleted all of her personal mail. And she informed me that it wasn’t my mail, it was her mail, and please do not press the Delete key. And I claimed in my computer incompetency and so on. But it wasn’t enough to suffice, and she told me, she said, “Press the thing, ‘Keep as New.’ Do you see that there? ‘Keep as New.’ Would you do that?” Okay, I said, I would. And so far, I haven’t touched it since then. I’m so afraid to. But anyway… I do know that when I go in next time, I will go, not “Delete,” but “Keep as New,” so that she can bring it up as many times as she likes. She can read it till she’s a hundred years old, as far as I’m concerned.

Now, here you come to the book of Revelation, and frankly, you go around, and certain people have deleted the book of Revelation. They pressed the Delete key a long time ago: “Whatever this book is, I don’t know. Whoever it was written to, I don’t know. What it is about, I haven’t got a clue. Hit the Delete key. Put it somewhere. Drag it over to that big waste bucket and put it in there for now. There’s a lot of the Bible we’ve got to deal with.” Don’t do that. “Keep as New.” Come to it, asking God, as we do now, to speak to us in the immediacy of our circumstances from the historical context of these ancient letters.

Now, it is at this point that I want to introduce a nursery rhyme, because it’s important in going forward. I want to thank Pamela and Alison, my research assistants this morning—ladies that I met at breakfast—for making sure that I had this nursery rhyme correct. It goes as follows:

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
And pussy cat, pussy cat what did you there?

And this is the bit I couldn’t remember. Thanks to my assistants: “I frightened a little mouse under the chair.”

“Well,” you say, “well, thanks very much for that. But how could that possibly be relevant to studies in the book of Revelation?” Well, simply for this reason: that there is a great message in this nursery rhyme, isn’t there? You missed it? All these years you’ve been saying it, and you missed it! The fact of the matter is that the cat goes in order that it may make a visitation upon the majesty and gets distracted in the process, chasing mice under chairs.

Now, here’s the thing, especially about the book of Revelation: I’ve grown up in Scotland, as you know. I’ve heard more sermons on the letters to the seven churches in Revelation than I’ve had spaghetti bolognaise in my lifetime. I could keep you here a long time, giving you all the amazing stories that have been given to me in these letters. And I am forced to conclude that a lot of it was chasing mice under chairs. Because it left me empty of an understanding that would satisfy my mind, and it left me devoid of a vision of the risen Christ alive and ready to meet his people where they are.

It is imperative, therefore, that as we study in these mornings, that we keep our eyes on Jesus. Failure to do so will find us chasing speculative, figurative mice under chairs and all over the place. The book of Revelation, as with the rest of the Bible, has not been given to us to satisfy our curiosity, but it has been given to us in order that our lives may be changed by it.

Now, let me give you one final picture, and I’m going to move on. In the ice skating, in the Olympics, most recently from Salt Lake City—setting aside the Canadian fiasco—when those ice skaters spin as they do, it’s remarkable, isn’t it? You say to yourself, “You know, if I tried doing that just a couple of times out on the front grass, I’m going to fall on my rear end, immediately. And my wife will point it out: ‘Ha ha! You’re not very good at spinning, are you?’ So how in the world do you do that?” And you can’t watch them, you know, because you’re trying to stay with them.

Well, I checked. And apparently, the key is this: that before they go into the spin, they focus on a certain point. And then, as the spin commences and as it increases in velocity, they train themselves, on each revolution, to try and at least catch a glimpse of the fixed point again and again. Failure to do so, and they would go skiting right out of Salt Lake City very, very quickly.

Now, you’re a sensible group of people. You can make the application. If you fail, if we fail constantly to keep our focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, then in the study of the Scriptures, and particularly, perhaps, in the study of Revelation, we will begin to spin helplessly and hopelessly out of control. The key is focus, looking unto Jesus.

I think it’s Alec Motyer, in his wonderful book called Look to the Rock, he says that the Bible is a book about Jesus—that in the Old Testament, he is predicted; that in the Gospels, he is revealed; in the Acts, he is preached; in the Epistles, he’s explained; and in the Revelation, he is expected. So the word that has been given to me—to make sure that in the exposition of the text, I turn the gaze of my own heart first to Christ and then the hearts of the listeners—I want to pay careful attention to. And then we will discover the amazing relevance of this to each of us.

When our churches are crushed, when we feel ourselves depleted and disappointed, then it will be a glorious vision of the Lord Jesus Christ that will help us. If we come from church congregations where we’ve been thinking a little too much of ourselves, perhaps talking about ourselves more than we should, proudly and foolishly drawing attention to ourselves, then it is by this vision of the risen Lord Jesus Christ that we will be necessarily humbled, by reminding ourselves that we as local congregations may be lampstands, but all of the light is Christ himself, and we exist in order that he might shine through us.

Now, I’ve taken time on that purposefully. I’m not going to do that every morning, you’ll be relieved to know. But it is important to establish the ground rules. The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. Resist every temptation to go crawling under the chairs. All right?

The Letter to Sardis

Now, immediately, having said that, you turn to the thing, and you realize that as you look at the text, the number seven comes again and again: “These are the words of him,” 3:1, “who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” And as Leon Morris says, for one so fond of symbolism, these things can hardly be without significance.

We as local congregations may be lampstands, but all of the light is Christ himself, and we exist in order that he might shine through us.

Well, just when we come to this first verse, we discover that Mr. Smith, who’s present at our local Bible study, immediately wants to launch in with a word of personal testimony about what the number seven has meant to him in his life. And also, he’s very quickly going to tell you that he knows the identity of “the angel of the church in Sardis.” Now, what are we going to do with dear Mr. Smith and his kindly wife Ethel, who is nodding all the time as Mr. Smith begins to launch into this minor exposition? What is the leader to do?

Well, first, the leader is to do their homework, so that we have studied the text of Scripture, we have studied those who have said helpful things about it, so that we are prepared to recognize that there is a clarity to this, there is a brevity to it, and it is all purposeful. The person who is leading the group, having done their homework, will know that you can get a PhD doing what Mr. Smith is now about to do in the local Bible study group—namely, explaining who the angel of the churches is.

And so, you pick up one commentary, and it says that the angel is the messenger. You pick up another commentary, and it says that the angel is the pastor or the bishop or the leader of the church. I don’t know if you brought your pastor with you or if you left him behind, but I’m not sure if my congregation back in Cleveland, when they think “pastor,” immediately think “angel.” I don’t know that many of them are referring to me as “the angel of the church at Parkside” who is over, at the moment, in Skegness. I’m sure they have a number of designations for me. I’m pretty well determined that “angel” is not one of them—especially if they spend any time with my wife or with my children. But that’s one of the explanations.

Then, one other explanation is that the angel means “angel.” There’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? That “angel” means “angel.” Don’t go under the chairs. Or, that “angel” is expressive of the spirit of these congregations, so that he is addressing—he is personalizing, as it were—the church, the entity, the body itself. “The angel of the church,” then, simply is an expression of its prevailing spirit.

Now, for myself, I think three or four is probably where we ought to be. But we don’t need to tie ourself up in knots about what is uncertain and thereby get confused about what is clear. Because the message that is given to this angel, whose identity is obviously cloudy, is a message that is clearly meant for the church. And so we say, “Well, we can’t say with absolute certainty just who or what this angel is, but we do know that the Lord Jesus has spoken very, very clearly, and he has identified himself here: the words coming from ‘him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.’”

Now, each time Jesus is designated—and these messages follow a pattern throughout—you’ll discover that it ties back into the vision of Christ that is given for us by John, from the ninth verse on, in chapter 1. And here is no exception: Jesus is identified in terms of his majesty and his authority.

But who are, then, these “seven spirits of God”? Or what are the “seven spirits of God”? Mounce, in his commentary, says, “The seven spirits of God are enigmatic at best,”[4] which means, “I don’t know.” But when you’re clever, you can do it in a sentence like that: “The seven spirits of God are enigmatic at best”—which sounds better than saying, “I haven’t a clue who the seven spirits of God are.” But he hasn’t got much of a clue.

It may be a symbolic expression of the full range of the exercises of the divine power in the seven churches. It may be expressive of the heavenly entourage referred to in 1:4. Or it may be, as the footnote in the NIV seems to suggest, a reference to the sevenfold operation of the Spirit of God that is referred to back in Isaiah 11:2. Make a note of that, and just put it down for homework: “Isaiah 11:2? Vis-à-vis Revelation 3:1.”

Again, we needn’t stumble over what is hazy, because the Lord Jesus says very quickly, “I am the majestic one. I am the authoritative one. I am the one who holds all of the deeds and the responsibilities of these churches. I move among them. And I want you to know that I know your deeds.” “I know your deeds.”

Just pause for a minute and think about the amazing nature of that phrase, “I know your deeds.” Who knows you? You say, “Well, my wife knows me, my kids know me, my boss knows me,” whatever. “Who knows the spirit of a man except the thoughts of a man that are in him?”[5] The only one who actually knows is the one who writes this letter.

The psalmist, understanding it, says, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit down; you know when I stand up; you know the thoughts of my heart. You know my words before I even speak them. Such knowledge is high. I cannot attain to it.”[6]

Small wonder that the Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[7] There is an awesomeness about the simplicity of this phrase, written to this church in the first century, relevant to the congregations we’ve left behind this morning. The risen Christ looks upon us, and he says, “I know.”

I can’t remember what the program was. It just comes to my mind as I speak. But there was a line. A lady used to say it—something like Thora Hird. She used to say, “She knows, you know.” Can’t remember what it was. It’s irrelevant now. But the Lord Jesus knows. And he writes to this church in Sardis, and he says, “I know your deeds. I know what you do. And I know that you have a reputation of being alive, but you’re dead.” It’s not difficult to grasp that, is it? Pretty succinct statement: “Hey, Sardis! I know everybody says you’re a great place. I know they all think you’re fantastic. But I know that you’re dead.”

They had a great reputation, apparently, as having a vital ministry, but it’s only in name alone. It’s only in reputation. Stott says, quoting the comings and goings of the people, he says, “‘What a live church you have here in Sardis!’ visitors would exclaim with admiration when they attended its services or watched its activities; and so no doubt it appeared.”[8] But things were not as they appeared. And that’s the significance of verse 2: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found”—and this is the phrase—“I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of … God.” “I haven’t found your deeds complete.” What he means is this: “Your deeds are like a shell. If you go beyond the routine of them, there’s nothing there.”

Here is a congregation that is known for perhaps its size or for its influence, for the way in which it has been able to put its programs together and the way it’s been able to develop certain strategies, and they’re well-known throughout the Christian community, and people come and take a Sunday off from another congregation in order that they might go and see what’s going on. And so they all flock into Sardis. And Jesus says, “I see this, and you lack the proper motivation, and you lack, at the same time, spiritual orientation. Therefore, your stuff is a sham.”

See, we need to face the fact that the essence of a church is not its programs or its buildings or its achievements or its reputation or its institutional greatness or its formal, constituted, doctrinal clarity, as important as that is. But the real issue of a church is its spiritual life. Is anybody alive in here? You know?

In the course of twenty-seven years, now, in pastoral ministry, I’ve sat in funeral homes more than I ever wanted to. Eventually, I will be in one myself. But on that occasion, I won’t be aware of it. But on the occasions that I have been aware of it, I don’t really like it in there. The undertakers put you in back rooms with all kinds of things behind curtains that I don’t even want to look behind. But the one thing that has struck me about it is it’s deathly in there, you know? There’s no coughing. You don’t hear anybody whistling, you know, in booth number two. You know, down on the one over in the corner, nobody’s going, “Here we go, here we go, here…” It’s just deathly. In the States, they dress them up, you know—paint them up. Some people I haven’t even recognized in their coffins. They look so good by the time they’re finished with them, they look better than they did when they were alive. But they’re dead!

Beware of making yourself look good, talking the live talk—“I know this, I’ve been there, we’ve done this, we’re developing that, we are this”—lest Christ, who knows the deeds, walks amongst us and says, “You know, I know it looks good, but you’ve got a problem.”

The essence of a church is not its programs, buildings, achievements, reputation, institutional greatness, or its formal, constituted, doctrinal clarity. The real issue of a church is its spiritual life.

The problem in this church in Sardis would appear to be from verse 4, given that there were some people who were distinct from the majority: the problem of moral laxity. In verse 4 he says, “You[’ve] a few people in Sardis who have[n’t] soiled their clothes.” In other words, the exception in this group are those who are living pure lives. The majority of the place is soiled. The most scathing statements, incidentally, of the seven messages are in this one and in the last one: message five and message seven, which they asked me to take first. Maybe it’s to get the worst over immediately so that we can end on a more encouraging note. But these are difficult messages to proclaim. I’m sure it’s not easy for you to listen to.

“The majority of you,” he says, “have soiled your clothes!” Sardis was known as a place of licentiousness. The pagan environment was almost overwhelming. And apparently, what had happened was that this church, despite the fact that it gave the impression to people who were not able to discern the reality of things that it was really vibrant, it was really going on well, if you’d been able to look down on the inside of it as the risen Christ did, you would have seen that the majority of the people were at least fiddling and tampering with the moral laxity that was represented in the prevailing culture.

Now, listen, my dear friends, and listen carefully: this is where contemporary Christianity is in more cases than we are prepared to admit. The boat is supposed to be in the water, but the water is not supposed to be in the boat. And in the realm of student ministry, if you probe and you listen, you will discover that students, university students, many of them are prepared to allow the flush of a moral inconsistency so to sweep over them as to lose the purity and vibrancy that is to be theirs living in obedience to the standards of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If people could see into our living rooms, let alone into our minds, the amount of material that contemporary Christianity takes onboard on a weekly basis—is it any wonder that we are as ineffectual as we are? Is it any wonder that we cut as little as we do? We say nothing, because we have nothing to say. Because there’s nothing that will seal your lips or tie your tongue like the poverty of your own spiritual experience. You can’t go to the man next-door and tell him, “Get rid of the dandelions out of your grass here, because it’s all blowing over to my place,” when you’ve got a nettle patch the like of which the botanical gardens would be delighted to have. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.

“Oh, but the attendance was good. Oh, the singing was great! They knew that you were to lift up holy hands.” They had decided they would just lift up hands, because they weren’t holy. Some of us ought to sit on our hands for a while, till we settle the issues in the secret place of our lives. For he who walks amongst the lampstands says, through Sardis, into our lives today, “I know. You can’t fool me.” So don’t let the vibrancy of our singing or the intensity of our preaching or the consistency of our attending ever become a cover for the absence of our spiritual vitality.

“Oh, waken up!” Verse 2: “Wake[n] up!” Sardis thought it was impregnable, the way it was built. I won’t go into the details of it. It’s largely extraneous. But it regarded itself as an impregnable place. It was never ever taken by a direct assault on the gates and walls of the city. But twice it was taken by stealth, under the cover of darkness. And when they thought they were impregnable, then the marauding forces came in and managed to cripple the city. It was its very sense of sheltered ease which worked against it.

Some of us are bemoaning our circumstances. We’re bemoaning how difficult things are, the challenges we face, the disappointments: “It’s not as it once was, it seems to be a more difficult day,” and so on. But listen, my dear friends, what do you want? Ease? Ease is no good. Sunshine all the time, you only have desert. The Lord chastens those he loves, and he rebukes those whom he cares for, [9] in order that he might save us from settling down into the sort of comfortable, complacent easiness which makes us so vulnerable to the subtle, internal attacks of those who love to sleep.

It’s funny, isn’t it? ’Cause when you’re asleep, you don’t know you’re asleep. It’s not exactly a deep thought, I admit, you know—not exactly a philosophical breakthrough. But it is interesting, isn’t it? That when you’re asleep, you don’t know you’re asleep. It’s only when you wake up you knew you were asleep. And people say silly things like that. They don’t… They wake up, and they go, “Oh, was I asleep?” “Yes.” “Well, that’s good. Because if I wasn’t asleep, I was probably dead.” Exactly! So when you go in that pose, and you come in, you find your grandfather like that, you gotta go up and give him a wee shake. Because if he’s not asleep, he’s dead. Because he gives no signs of life at all.

And so the word is “Hey, waken up! Strengthen what remains. Remember what you received; obey it, and repent.” Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. People say, “What am I supposed to do now?” Well, the Lord Jesus tells us very, very clearly. He issues a warning. “You better keep awake,” he says. “The city was overtaken by stealth. Your church may be overtaken in the same way.”

Now, it’s clear that it wasn’t all hypocrisy in Sardis. There were some who were still marked by loyalty. That’s the significance of verse 4. There’s a few people there who are still marked by loyalty: “They walk with me. They’re dressed in white. They are worthy.” And so Jesus says, “I want you to look at those who are still loyal, to those who are still awake, and I want you to find in them an incentive and an encouragement to be like them. Rouse yourself from your slumbers.” Some of us are in churches where it would appear to be only a small group of us are able to keep going, and every so often we say, “I wonder should I still do this?” Well, keep on.

I remember, when I was about seventeen, getting in the car in Ilkley, once I got my driver’s license, and threw a few friends in there along with me, and off we made the journey through Harrogate and over to York, always on a Sunday afternoon, and the reason being that we wanted to go to St Michael-le-Belfry, where the late David Watson was teaching the Bible in the Sunday evening services. And what a thrill it was! Especially when I realized, having got there the first evening and had to watch it on closed-circuit television (I made sure I never did that again; got in time the next time, so that I would be in the actual building itself), and when I realized that David Watson, as a young curate, had been sent to St Michael-le-Belfry, because the church was in disrepair. It was physically in disrepair; it was falling apart. It was spiritually in disrepair; it was a dead place. There maybe have been one or two that were sleepy folks, who needed a pincushion in them, or a pin from the pin cushion in them. But by and large, he was sent there by the diocese so that he could kind of practice on the dead and the dying and the sleeping. Because after all, the plans by the diocese was “We’ll shut St Michael-le-Belfry down.” Ha-ha, good! Nice try! Not in the plans of Jesus, unfortunately. “Thank you, administrator, from the bishop’s office.”

And suddenly, the students of the university are there. Suddenly, the people are there. Suddenly, the singing is vibrant. What has happened? Well, they woke up! Who woke them up? The risen Lord Jesus. How did he wake them up? Taking them in his hands, filling them with his Spirit, driving them again to their knees, showing them the inconsistency of their pilgrimage. And, of course, before God called David home, the services had moved to another church, and then the guest services were being held in York Minster.

Now, I look at this church in Sardis, and it chills me. I find myself saying,

O breath of life, come sweeping through us,
And revive your church with life and power;
Cleanse us, renew us,
And fit your church to meet this hour.[10]

And the promise, you will notice there, is so very clear: “He who overcomes will, like them,” verse 5, “be dressed in white. I[’ll] never [erase] his name from the book of life.” I’m so glad we sang that hymn: “My name from the palms of his hands eternity cannot erase, because they’re there, marked with indelible grace.”[11]

Now, the gravity of the situation calls for the severity of Christ’s assessment. And the severity of the Lord Jesus’ assessment is an occasion for hope and encouragement, because he is speaking to those, verse 6, who have ears to hear: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit [is saying] to the churches.”

I’m so thankful for all of this wonderful music and hymnody that we’ve been enjoying. And I was just telling Graham that we probably sing more of his stuff in our church than any other church that I’ve found in America, at least, because of the strength of the lyrics as well as the wonderful melody lines. But I’m of a vintage where I’ve got another whole hymnody that is locked in a file in my head. We used to sing a chorus that said, “I’m listening in, I’m listening in to what God says about my sin.” Are you listening in? I’m not so concerned whether you’re listening to me. You may have tuned in and out a half a dozen times already. But he and she who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, you’ve got to listen to the Lord Jesus.

The Letter to Laodicea

Now, it is that very call to listen which ties all of the messages together. And let me just show you briefly, in the Laodicean context, that this is at the very heart of the word that is given to them. Because the most familiar verse probably in the whole book of Revelation falls in that passage there in verse 20, where Jesus says, “I’m at the door, and I knock, and anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Most of us are very familiar with that verse and used in an evangelistic context. Many of us may not be as familiar with the framework in which it is found. And it will behoove us as we wrap this up this morning just to say to ourselves, “Now, to whom and in what context is Jesus speaking?”

You will notice again the pattern at the beginning: “To the angel,” and then, “[Here] are the words of the Amen.” Who is “the Amen”? Jesus, who is the “faithful and true witness”; he is “the ruler [over] God’s creation.” He reigns. And he comes in all of his might and all of his authority, and again he gives his assessment. In verse [15] he says, “I know your deeds.” “I know you.” And again, it’s not a pleasant message. He says, “I know your deeds, that you[’re] neither cold nor hot.”

They were like a cup of tea in an American restaurant—with apologies to my American friends. They can make a lot of things, but they can’t make a cup of tea. So I have given up on tea in America now. For nineteen years, I’ve turned my teeth black drinking this disgraceful coffee, which they’ve managed successfully to send to us over the Atlantic Ocean. I noticed, ’cause I watched all of you: “Coffee please, coffee please, coffee please.” Now the minority who haven’t soiled their clothes are still drinking tea. But you ask for tea, it comes in a wee teapot thing. I’m not going to digress on this. But anyway… I don’t need to explain. You’re a well-traveled group. And I don’t want… This may get back home, and then they’ll throw me out, and… But that’ll be okay too. Anyway, let’s move along.

This context, incidentally, was a financial center. It was known for its banking. It had all of the accoutrements that would go with wealth. It was famous also for its sheep, and particularly for a soft black wool that was woven into expensive garments—the kind of clothes that you would be able to wear, and people say, “Mm, did you get that from Laodicea?” A bit like when they rub you and go, “Oh, cashmere!” Say, “Mm-hmm, black wool!” That kind of thing. So it was the sort of thing that you would want to have. And if you could have a label on it as well, then you’d feel even better. So it said “Laodicea,” like that. People go, “Hmm, very nice indeed!” And thirdly, it was known for its medical school, and particularly, apparently, the department of ophthalmology that had developed some kind of salve that had been useful in certain forms of eye condition.

And in this environment the church is set: financially prosperous, skillful in its business practices, known for its medical facility. And God has placed his people in the heart of that. Some of them are involved in each of these areas. They’re involved in all of the diversity of life in Laodicea. And there Jesus says, “I want you to shine,” “You in your small corner, and I in mine,”[12] as the song goes. “I want you to reflect the light that is me in your life and to that community.”

But once again, it would appear that they were absorbed by the culture. Because the nature of their spiritual condition is, as given to us in this little phrase, is actually deplorable. When I read around this, I discovered things that I never knew before, which isn’t difficult for me. I do that all the time. But in contrast to Hierapolis, a nearby city which was known for its very warm, medicinal springs, and Colossae, which had its water supply served by a fresh mountain spring, Laodicea’s water supply came from a fair distance, passed through a long piping system, and in particularly, in the warmer summer months, the water was at best tepid by the time it came out. And so one of the features of a Laodicean would be, like, if he’s riding his bike—it’s an anachronism—if he’s riding his pony, and he stopped for a drink of water, he’d take a drink of water and then go, “Pfft! Oh man! This water here in Laodicea, it stinks!” So there are people spitting all the time in Laodicea. They’re all like pfft! pfft!—everywhere you go, spitting! Worse than Tiger Woods in the Masters. Spitting everywhere!

Now, Jesus, who knows their deeds, says, “Hey, spitters? Hey, spitting community? You make me want to spit you out of my mouth.” It’s not a very impressive assessment, is it? It would be one thing if they were immediately aware of their circumstances. But the fact is that the environment in which they’re living has clouded them from the reality that they’re facing. They’ve got enough of the surrounding culture injected, inoculated into them so as to create enough of the disease to prevent them from it taking complete root. But the fact of the matter is, they’re compromised! They’ve lost their cutting edge. Jesus looks on them and says to them, “Listen, this isn’t the way it should be. Your condition is deplorable. And furthermore, you’re self-deceived. When you speak, you say,” he says—“I know the kind of things you say. You say, ‘I am rich. I don’t need anything.’ The fact is, you don’t know that you’re poor and wretched and blind.”

You know, if we conducted interviews with people going out of the churches in Laodicea—had a little group of university students there with a clipboard and a sheet and said, “Excuse me, I’d just like to have a little conversation with you before you leave. What we’re going to do is we’re just going to score it on one to ten, with ten being high. I’d just like you to rate yourself on a variety of things”—the fact of the matter is that people would be scoring themselves way beyond seven, and in many cases right up to ten. “Yes, we’re all very good, fine, faithful, insightful folks. We’re well catered for. We have everything we need. If we can help you in any way at all, we are the ones who are ready to come to your aid, you poor, incarcerated, persecuted believers who need our help so dreadfully.” Oh yes? Well, of course, in one sense, it’s true. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the vibrancy of the persecuted church is significantly greater than the vibrancy of the average local congregation out of which I have come. I don’t know about you.

But we congratulate ourselves, confused by our material circumstances, with a heightened sense of our own importance as a result of what we’ve been able to do and the things that people say about us, and salve our consciences by putting something in an envelope and sending it halfway around the world to who knows where. Christ looks into our churches, takes the lid off the church, and says, “I know your deeds. It would be one thing if you were blazing hot. I’d actually rather you were freezing cold. But you are in this dreadful position, a horrible situation.”

And the last night, in the … circumstances, I got a sausage roll. I couldn’t resist it. It was long, and it was calling to me from the thing when I stood up. And I promised my wife as well, I said, “No, no sausage rolls. I won’t eat sausage rolls.” And then, my very first night, I ate a sausage roll. Anyway… Confession is good for the soul. But I said to the lady, “Could you make it really hot?” And she looked at me like, “Well, yes!” And she did. Because I’ll tell you: lukewarm sausage rolls? Oh, bad! I mean, really bad! When that pastry is sort of like [imitates mouthing noise], and the sausage, you don’t know. Right? You’re like, “Oh, I can’t eat this.” You’re looking round for somewhere… You’re folding up your napkin, trying to be discrete, putting it away. Give me a really hot, or just put it on ice. But don’t give me one of those lukewarm sausage rolls.

I think Jesus would be perfectly happy with this illustration. I don’t think there’s any doubt. He’d say, “That’s right, son. Preach it. Sure! I mean, I said water. You can use sausage rolls. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same point.”

Where are you? If you’re freezing cold, you need Christ. If you’re blazing hot, you need Christ. If you’re like the men of the grand old Duke of York, neither up nor down, you need Christ. What do we need? Jesus!

We sing a song back home; it goes,

All that I need is you, Jesus,
All that I need is you,
From early in the morning [till] late at night,
All that I need is you.
All that I need is you.[13]

I sing that to myself all the time.

You think about your church: you think you’re smart. What do you need? To see Christ in all his majesty and all his authority. You think about your church, and you say, “What can we possibly do? There’s millions of people in this city. What are we? Look at us! I mean, look at the choir. Look at the worship team. I mean, look at these people. Did you ever see a funnier group of people in all your life? And look at the deacon giving thanks for the bread. Man, does his wife choose his shirts? What’s the deal with that? The world’s so big and so powerful and so mighty, and here we come trudging in.” What do we need? We need a sight of the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, ’cause otherwise, we’re going to spin helplessly out of control. Focus. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face”; and then “the things of earth,” they “grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”[14]

Well, our time is gone, isn’t it? At least I’m sure it is. Wealth had bred in them a sense of self-sufficiency. They wore nice clothes. They were oblivious to their spiritual nakedness. They boasted of the department of ophthalmology, and they were spiritually blind. And Jesus says, “I know you inside and out, and I find little to my liking. You’re stale. You’re stagnate. You brag, ‘I’m rich. I’ve made it. I need nothing.’ You’re oblivious to the fact that you’re pitiful. You’re like a blind beggar. You’re threadbare, and you’re homeless.”

So, is that it? No! Is Christ about to abandon them? No! That’s the wonderful thing about grace, isn’t it? This is an honest assessment: “You think this, you think this, you think this. The fact is, this, this, and this.” We’d be tempted to say, “So away you go home, and I’m going to get another football team. Put your jerseys in a pile and get out of here, for there’s nothing I can do with you!” (Now I’m the manager of a football team, you understand.) Anybody can do that!

But if you’re a wee red-haired Scotsman who just became the manager of the team that beat Derby yesterday afternoon—they scored those four great goals—he says, “Okay, come on, boys. I’m at the door. I’m knocking. We’re going back to basics. We’re going to trap it. We’re going to pass it. We’re going to run into space. We’re going to move off the ball. We’re going to cover for one another. We’re going to be a team. Do you understand that?” “Yes!” “Let’s go.”

Jesus comes to the church—a ragtag and bobtail operation if ever there was one. His assessment is not good. The prognosis is poor. But he doesn’t say, “Put your jerseys down, and I’ll go get another group.” He says, “Come here. We’re going to be a team. I’m standing at the door and knocking. And if you hear my voice and open the door, listen to what I’m going to do: I will come in, and I will eat with you.” He doesn’t say, “And if you hear my voice, I’m going to give you a pass. And if you have that pass, then you can come to my house sometime, and you’ll be included with a big group of people, and you can come and say, ‘I’m going to eat at Jesus’ house.’” No! Jesus comes to eat at our house. He says, “I will come in to you, and I will eat with you. I will sit at your table.”

This morning, as I had my breakfast, a lady came to me and said, “Can I sit here?” And I said, “Yes.” And then she said, “Oh, no, I’m not going to sit here. I’m going over there.” So I said, “Okay.” So then she went away to another table, and I started to talk to two other people, and when I turned back, there was no lady, and there was no table. Even my table was gone! I was tableless! I don’t know what happened, but I was done! So, what could I do, you know? Just stand and eat your Weetabix by yourself! I was in need of somebody to say, “You can sit here.” Jesus says, “Hey, if you hear my voice…” It’s John 14, incidentally: “If a man loves me, he will keep my commandments, and I too will love him. And along with the Father, I will come, and I will show myself to him.”[15]

I was getting my hair cut the other day; there was a Korean lady, and I couldn’t hardly understand a word she said. But she told me that she met Jesus. And so I thought she was going to tell me, you know, like, on 42nd Street she saw him coming out of a taxi or something like that. But she said, “I not actually see his face, but I hear his voice.” And then she said, “But I not actually hear his voice, and I not see his face, but I met him. I met him.” And her face just lit up. And I said, “How did you meet him?” And she told me the story of how she met him. There’s no doubt in her mind. He walks with her, he talks with her, he tells her that she’s his own.[16] There’s communion. The promise: a seat at the table. And the promise: a place on the throne.

“Hey, saints, lift up your eyes.” Jesus says, “Buy your gold from me. Buy your clothes from me. Buy your medicine from me. If you buy the medicine from me, then you’ll really see. Buy your clothes from me, because you’ve been half-naked long enough. Buy your gold from me, through the refiner’s fire.” How do we understand this? In light of Isaiah 55. That’s part of your homework.

“Take my counsel,” he says. “Get on the boil. Repent. Listen. Open the door. Acknowledge that you need the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And incidentally, the meal. The word that is used there of supping is deipnon, which refers to not a meal that you would get on the fly while you were going to platform seven but a meal à la France, where you would sit for a long time as an expression of companionship and enjoyment and friendship and fellowship and everything else. And it’s all tied in. Jesus says, “If you listen to me and you hear my voice and you open the door, I’ll be there.”

So poor old Sardis and Laodicea—not a particularly happy story, but what a wonderful gesture on the part of the risen Christ as he comes to bless his people. May he come to our hearts today.

Let us pray:

God our Father, we pray that the words of my mouth, the thoughts of our hearts may be acceptable in your sight.[17] Out of a multitude of words, God, grant that we might hear your voice. Stir us up by way of pure remembrance, we pray. Turn our gaze to Christ. Cleanse us. Fill us. Use us for your glory. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.

[2] Arabella K. Hankey, “I Love to Tell the Story” (1866).

[3] Revelation 2:2 (paraphrased).

[4] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 93.

[5] 1 Corinthians 2:11 (paraphrased).

[6] Psalm 139:1–2, 4, 6 (paraphrased).

[7] Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10 (NIV 1984). See also Proverbs 1:7.

[8] John Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1990), 78.

[9] See Hebrews 12:6.

[10] Bessie P. Head, “O Breath of Life” (ca. 1914). Lyrics lightly altered.

[11] Augutus M. Toplady, “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (1771). Lyrics lightly altered.

[12] Susan B. Warner, “Jesus Bids Us Shine” (1868).

[13] Keith Lancaster, “My Only Hope Is You.”

[14] Helen H. Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” (1922).

[15] John 14:21 (paraphrased).

[16] C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1912).

[17] See Psalm 19:14.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.