In chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation, Jesus speaks of a church that has died. This beloved church once was vibrant with life, enjoying a good reputation, but now all that was gone. I have seen such “lampstand churches” in my travels around the world: congregations from Europe to South America to New York City, once full of the Holy Spirit, thriving and winning many souls, but now having no life at all.
The Lord’s heart breaks over this condition in his church. And I believe he has given us these two chapters in Revelation precisely to show us what causes such spiritual death, whether in congregations, families or individuals. His loving words here are meant to help every believer and church avoid this tragic condition in the last days.
Yet, sadly, Revelation 2 and 3 are among the most neglected passages in all of Christianity. They’re seldom preached, and very little about them can be found in Bible commentaries. Here is the Lord’s last, most solemn message to his people, holding the promise of his blessing to all who read and hear it. Why have these chapters been so ignored? I’m convinced one reason is that the devil absolutely hates this passage. After all, it contains the Lord’s stated antidote to deadness, dryness and apathy in his church, and you can be sure the enemy doesn’t want it revealed.
Here is the context of the passage: in Revelation 1, Christ appears to the apostle John in a vision, walking in the midst of seven candlesticks and holding seven stars in his right hand. Jesus explains the vision to John: “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, the seven candlesticks are the seven churches (in Asia)” (Revelation 1:20). Most Bible commentators agree these were seven literal, historical churches in Asia. Most sources also agree that the “angels” represent the pastors of these churches. Christ was instructing John to send a letter to each of these pastors.
There are two schools of thought on how to interpret Revelation 2 and 3.
One school of interpretation is called dispensationalism. This teaches that the seven churches represent seven successive phases of the church. The first phase began with the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1ff), and the last climaxed with the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:14ff). This interpretation suggests we’re in the Laodicean phase today.
The other school of thought teaches that these seven churches coexist at the same time — indeed, they illustrate conditions that exist in every church age. Thus, the seven letters were meant for all pastors living in all times, from the first-century church to the very end of days.
Jesus meant these seven letters as correctives, or loving rebukes, to his people. Each letter was to be read by the pastor to the congregation, and it was the minister’s responsibility to answer for his church. He was the guardian of the flock, and if he wasn’t stirred and changed by Christ’s word, spiritual death would creep into the congregation. Think for a moment about who these pastors were: they were spiritual sons of John and of the apostle Paul. You would think for this reason alone their churches would be wide awake and on fire. But these pastors were no different from many today, having lapses of zeal and discernment.
Christ didn’t dictate these letters as messages of wrath, but as love letters meant to awaken his church.
Now consider Jesus’ words to these churches. He says to the pastor at Ephesus: “You have left your first love and fallen into apathy. Repent!” To the pastor at Pergamos: “You have allowed false doctrine to creep in. A worldly, non-Christian spirit is at work in your midst.” To the pastor at Thyatira: “An ungodly Jezebel spirit has overcome you. You’re no longer dealing with sin in your church.” To the pastor at Laodicea: “You and your people have grown indifferent because you’re prosperous. You’re lukewarm now, with no fire, hunger or growth. Repent!” (see Revelation 2 and 3). This is all very strong language. Yet, don’t misunderstand: Christ didn’t dictate these letters as messages of wrath, but as love letters meant to awaken his church. He’s trying to shake his people from their sloth, to show them the danger of where they’re heading.
But Satan has mostly succeeded in hiding this powerful message from God’s people. I’m convinced his achievement in recent years has been to deceive multitudes with a different gospel, one that’s non-sacrificial, non-reproving and flesh-appeasing. This gospel deadens all conviction for sin and blinds the eyes of those who should be awakened. In short, it’s robbing many of the capacity to be stirred. Isaiah describes the spiritual state this gospel induces: “(They) will not hear the law of the Lord: (they) say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9–11). Isaiah is saying, “The people no longer want a message of holiness. They’ve been so lulled by their deception, they now despise God’s law. They seek only a soothing, non-convicting gospel.”
The letter to the pastor at Sardis is the one that most stirs me today.
“Unto the angel [pastor] of the church in Sardis write…I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (Revelation 3:1). As a pastor, I have to ask myself, “Is this an indictment against our church and against my ministry?” I can honestly answer, “Absolutely not.” Times Square Church does have a reputation of having life, and that reputation is anchored in reality. All the pastors on our staff are very much alive in Christ and walking in the Spirit.
Yet I do believe Jesus is asking a crucial question of us in this passage: “David, do you have the capacity to be stirred by such a letter from me to your church today?” Simply put, spiritual death can happen even to an on-fire church. It happened to the reputed churches in Revelation 2 and 3, and we dare not think it can’t happen to any of us today.
Consider the church in Sardis. It started out in great apostolic power, with God’s blessing and favor on that congregation. These Christians did so many good works that their very name came to signify charity and giving. Yet now, in Revelation 3, Christ tells the pastor at Sardis: “I know you started out with a powerful reputation, because I gave you that good name. But you have allowed the life I gave you to ebb away. Tell this to your congregation: ‘You are dead. Will you have the capacity to hear this word, accept it and be aroused by it?’”
Beloved, if Jesus calls a congregation dead, it is dead. The pastor is lethargic, the people go through the motions, and the Spirit no longer moves. This defined the believers in Sardis: defiled, listless, unable to be stirred. Yet Christ tells us there was also in that church a holy, wide-awake remnant, and says he still has hope for them: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4).
When Jesus speaks of “defiled garments” here, he’s describing spiritual death. Yet, what caused the defilement of those believers in Sardis? It happened because something had hold of their hearts, a “special interest.” At one time, the center of everyone’s life was God’s interests: charitable works, a missions mindset, the faithful gathering of his body. Simply put, Christ’s work was their chief concern. But now, everyone was running after his own interests.
You see, Sardis was a prosperous town, known for gold smelting and the making of fine garments. Evidently, the Christians in Sardis became enamored of this surrounding culture of prosperity, and their focus shifted. They quickly began drifting away from the Lord’s interests toward a materialistic mindset.
By all outward appearances, nobody could fault these Christians for their pursuits. They were making a living, building up their businesses and taking care of their families. Yet these things became so all-consuming that they began to neglect the works of God. So Jesus issued a warning to the faithful remnant there: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect [finished] before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent” (Revelation 3:2–3).
What does Jesus mean here when he speaks of things “that are about to die”? He’s saying, “Beware. The excitement you once had for my house — your passion for my Word, your joy of public worship, your love for one another — has been dying. Slumber is falling over your eyes, and you’ve grown lukewarm. Wake up now! If you don’t, you could end up spiritually dead.”
When Jesus was on earth, he testified, “I am consumed with zeal for my Father’s house” (see John 2:17). Now his message to the Christians in Sardis, and to us today, is this: “You enjoyed my favor, with a good reputation all around. You were blessed with powerful worship and apostolic preaching. But instead of moving forward in those blessings, you began to think, ‘We have arrived.’ So you relaxed. You were no longer watchful, and indifference began to set in. Now you’ve settled into a spiritual comfort zone. I tell you, you didn’t finish the race. You didn’t go on to fulfill the mission I gave you. And I love you too much to let you go astray. Now, repent, and get back to the zeal you once had for the Father’s house. Allow your soul to be stirred by my words to you.”
The prophet Haggai warned of this very defilement.
God’s Word shows us what happens when we neglect his house and give first place to our own interests. It’s all illustrated in the book of Haggai. Keep in mind, the pastor at Sardis knew this prophetic book, and I’m convinced he should have been preaching its warnings to his church. Indeed, Haggai’s message contained the antidote needed to cure their condition. Yet, I also have to apply the same standard to myself: I too have Haggai’s prophecy. Do I have the capacity to hear it?
When Haggai prophesied, God had just delivered his people out of Babylon and led them back to Jerusalem to rebuild his house. The Lord desired a “lampstand church,” where he could visibly manifest his presence among his people. He wanted the nations to see the transformed lives of the Israelites and a land filled with his blessing and glory. So he commanded Israel, “Focus on my church — that is your first mission. If you will be faithful to take care of my house, I will take care of yours.”
The people started out doing as the Lord instructed them, beginning to rebuild his temple. But after a while, they said, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Haggai 1:2). The interpretation here is, “We don’t have time to do that work. We’re too busy.” In reality, they got consumed with building their own fine homes and businesses.
What was the Lord’s response? He said through Haggai, “Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this [my] house lie wasted?” (1:4). “Mine house [lies in] waste, and ye run every man unto his own house” (1:9). The prophet was saying, in essence, “God delivered you and set you on a mission to build his house. But you’re so busy building your own homes, you’re neglecting his. The Lord’s concerns are no longer your focus. You’re all wrapped up in your own interests.”
Believer, ask yourself: are you guilty of the same defilement? Do you have energy to run everywhere to attend to your own concerns — your kids, your family, your enjoyment — but have no energy for the Lord’s interests? Do you have time to work on your own house, but only a few hours on Sunday morning for the house of God? Do you make time to shop or watch TV, but find little or no time for prayer? More importantly, do you have the capacity to be stirred by these words from the Lord?
“I have a purpose for you. And I love you too much to let you go astray.”
Now God said through Haggai, “Let me show you what happens to those who neglect my house and who ‘run every man unto his own house.’” The prophet declared: “He that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes…. Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it…. I called for a drought” (1:6, 9, 11). Haggai was saying, “You will strive and strive, but you’ll never get ahead. All the money you make will disappear. Despite all your hard work and effort, you will never have enough.”
Now ask yourself: is God “blowing” on your finances? Do you wonder why you work so hard and yet still keep falling behind? Are you curious about why you don’t find satisfaction in anything you acquire? Haggai tells us why it’s all happening: “Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste [neglected]” (1:9).
The believers in Haggai’s day could have had sufficiency. They could have rejoiced in the blessings of their own houses, blessings provided by a loving God. Indeed, the Lord told them, “All this time, I would have blessed your comings and goings, bringing crops in the fields and fruit in the vineyards, blessing your homes and families. But because you are so consumed with your own interests, and neglecting my concerns, I have caused your lives to lack.” Thus, we read: “I smote you with blasting and with mildew and with hail in all the labours of your hands; yet ye turned not to me, saith the Lord” (2:17).
The Lord simply will not accept being second place in any of his people’s lives. And despite Israel’s selfishness and neglect, the Lord did not give up on them. Consider his words to them at the height of their self-centered pursuits: “Then spake Haggai the Lord’s messenger….saying, I am with you, saith the Lord” (1:13). God’s message to them was the same as Jesus’ words to the church in Sardis: “I have a purpose for you. And I love you too much to let you go astray.”
Thankfully, there was a small remnant in Israel that had the capacity to be stirred by God’s Word. Scripture tells us that Zerubbabel, Joshua the high priest and all the elders responded to Haggai’s message: “The Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua…and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and did the work in the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (1:14).
Here was the result of their obedience: now that God’s house had first place in their hearts, he promised to bless them, and he even put a date on it. “Consider now from this day and upward, from the four and twentieth day of the ninth month…yea, as yet the vine, and the fig tree, and the pomegranate, and the olive tree, hath not brought forth: from this day will I bless you” (2:18–19).
Haggai told them, “You may not see evidence of a fresh blessing at first. But you are in for fullness as you have never experienced it before. Even before you see it happening, you can know for certain: from this day on, the Lord will bless you.”
Just like the church in Haggai’s time — and, later, the church in Sardis — the Lord will not give up on a lampstand church, even though it has fallen into selfishness and neglect. And the first work of any such body and its pastor is to ask themselves: “Do we have the capacity to hear the Lord’s word to us, no matter how hard it may sound?”
What happened when God’s people came back with new zeal, putting his work first?
Once Israel was stirred, and returned to build up God’s house, they began to give the Lord his due. They were tithing, serving, and offering their services to every work that was needed. They also began worshipping corporately again, bringing their families back to a respect for God’s house, and no longer forsaking the assembling of his body. Then, three months from the day they were stirred and came back to God’s plan, they began to see the blessings the Lord had prophesied to them.
So, dear saint, or pastor, do you have the capacity to hear this word from the Lord through Haggai, and from Christ himself in Revelation 2 and 3? Can you honestly say, “Oh, Lord, my heart is open. Please, Jesus, show me — do I have the zeal that I once had for your house? Do I have the joy I once had in you? Do I still hunger to walk in intimacy with you? Or have my own interests crowded out your concerns?”
Let him speak to you again of his concerns. And walk in the blessings he has promised to provide for you, as you fulfill the work of his house.