The call in chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation is for the churches of the world to evaluate themselves. It is a call to self-reflection.
If the only application of this text was for a group of seven churches that existed just before the end of the first century AD, then there would be little use of these chapters today or throughout the bulk of church history.
These letters were written to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. But they also were written to us.
We see here seven churches that had strengths and weaknesses. Two in particular – in Smyrna and Philadelphia – seemed to have good things going. They were serving the Lord well. Even in difficult circumstances, even in tribulation, poverty, and weakness, these two churches were keeping the word of God and proclaiming the name of Christ.
Meanwhile, two churches in particular – in Sardis and Laodicea – seemed almost beyond saving. They may have looked good and prosperous, but they were dead. They were not doing the works of Christ.
And three churches – in Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira – were a mixed bag of good and bad. Jesus had some positive things to say to these churches. They were patiently enduring difficult times, and they could tell the difference between evil and good. But they were letting some things slide in their congregations that weren’t pleasing to Christ. In one, the enthusiasm for the gospel had faded. In the others, they’d allowed false teachers to slip in among them.
And so two churches were doing well. Two churches were doing poorly. And two were so-so.
And this prompts us to self-reflection. This isn’t personal self-reflection primarily but communal. Who are we as a church? Where have we fallen short? In what ways, when we read these letters, do we see ourselves?
Self-reflection is hard enough to do in our personal lives. Many of us have had the opportunity to work in places that required us to fill out “self-evaluation” forms about our job performance. I don’t know about you, but that was a difficult task. It wouldn’t be appropriate to give yourself a perfectly glowing score. Your boss would see through that. Plus, a little humility is a positive characteristic.
But you don’t want to go too far and score yourself very low. Your boss might wonder what your problem is and whether there really is something missing about your performance – whether you even should be kept around!
So you probably gave yourself a mix of good and bad scores. And you would never forget that this is an ultimately useless exercise because it didn’t really matter what you thought about your job performance. All that mattered was what your boss thought about it!
Sadly, this might be the only self-reflection a lot of people do. If we think on our moral lives, and on our commitment to Christ, what might we say? And does what we think really matter after all? There is one who knows all, and His thoughts are what count.
Jesus said, repeatedly, “I know your works.”
And yet, the seven letters to the seven churches of Revelation implicitly invite – no, demand – that we think hard not just about our personal commitment to Christ but also the communal commitment of this church to Christ. We remember that these weren’t letters to individuals. No one was mentioned by name except a martyr named Antipas and a false teacher who was given the pseudonym “Jezebel.”
No, these letters were written to churches. It was a collective commendation and a collective condemnation that they received. And the call to repent was given to the entire church.
To the church at Sardis – that “dead” church – Jesus said, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.”
To the church at Laodicea – that “lukewarm” church – Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.”
The question we must ask ourselves after reading these letters, if we are being honest and open with one another, is how we ought to go about evaluating ourselves as a church. Of what, as a church, should we repent? And how do we carry out this repentance – as a church?
You might have noticed that the one common factor that bound together the two churches that Jesus commended – the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia – was their poverty and littleness. “I know your tribulation and your poverty,” he told the believers in Smyrna. “I know that you have but little power,” he told those in Philadelphia.
And you might have noticed the blindness that bound together the two dismal churches in Sardis and Laodicea. “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up. … For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Perhaps we start there, with these two questions about poverty and blindness. How are we among the godly poor? And in what ways do we simply not see what we need to see about our spiritual state? Please think about these things today.