Christ saw things needing attention in His Church. He instructed John to write down His words and send them to the seven “angels” of the churches. This refers to His ministers, calling them the stars in His hand (see Revelation 1:16). He is telling John, “I love these servants. I’ve called and anointed them and now you’re to deliver My words to them.”
As a pastor myself, I have to wonder: What must it have been like to open such a letter from John? “Unto the pastor of the church in New York: Thus saith the Lord, concerning your congregation.” Now imagine what those seven ministers felt.
Take, for example, the pastor at Ephesus (see Revelation 2:1-11). As he reads John’s letter, he sees Christ rejoicing over His Church. The Lord commends the Ephesians for being hardworking, patient and discerning. They hate evil, and they stand up for the cause of Christ. And through the years, they’ve never stopped doing good deeds. This pastor marvels at what he reads and thinks, “Wow, the Lord is pleased with us. This is a letter of commendation.”
But as he reads on, he comes upon piercing words: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” (Revelation 2:4). Jesus warns the pastor, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick” (Revelation 2:5).
The Ephesian pastor must have been aghast at this. He thinks, “Repent? Or He’ll remove our witness? How could this be? We’re covenant believers. We’re justified by faith. We’ve been charitable, caring. Now we’re supposed to go back and be as we were at the beginning? What does that mean? How can this be Jesus speaking? How could I ever read this letter to my congregation?”
Keep in mind, these words are directed to a godly congregation. So this had to be a deeply serious matter in the Lord’s eyes. Otherwise, why would He speak so searchingly to such a shining example of a church? He’s telling the pastor, “Your love for Me isn’t what it once was. You’ve neglected communion with me. Now, repent!”
Jesus makes it clear that it all has to do with His presence. Yes, the Ephesians had labored diligently in doing good works but they were no longer intimate with the Lord.
Christ loves His Church. He gave His life for it, and told us that the gates of hell won’t prevail against it (see Matthew 16:18). Jesus Himself is the foundation stone of this Church and Scripture tells us His glory and wisdom dwell in it. At Pentecost, He sent His Holy Spirit to establish the Church and He has gifted it with anointed servants—pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets and evangelists—for the purpose of building it up (see Ephesians 4:11-12).
It is clear that the Lord desires to bless His Church so why does Revelation present such a fearsome picture of Christ when He appears to His people? John writes that Jesus comes to the Church with flaming eyes and a thundering voice:
“[I saw] in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man . . . His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow: and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1:13-16).
Now, Revelation is the summation of God’s Word. It describes the end of all things and here is the first image of Christ we see in this book. Why does Jesus appear so foreboding here? And why does He speak so piercingly to His Church? John writes that Christ’s words are as sharp as swords, cutting down to the marrow. Remember, this was the apostle who leaned his head on Jesus’ bosom. But now he finds himself on his face: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17).
The Lord Himself explains His awesome appearance: “All the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). The fact is, Christ loves His Church. And that’s the very reason He comes to search it. He comes to correct His people in love, to purify them.
When we’re in the midst of a trial, we must get our eyes off our troubles. In just such times, we need to encourage ourselves, saying, “My God can do anything—and He hasn’t forgotten me. He has His eyes on me right now, as I endure this awful trial. And I know, no matter how bad things look, that He has everything under control. Nobody, and no power, can change the plans He has for me.”
Maybe you’re discouraged right now, wondering, “I can’t see any way out of my troubles. Will I ever get out of this fiery trial? Will my suffering continue until Jesus comes? Lord, will I ever be able to rejoice again?”
Here is God’s answer to you: “Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (James 5:11). “The Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
You may not double what you’ve lost, as Job did. But you will possess something much greater. You’ll have a true heart-knowledge that God is in control of your life. His love for you will no longer be just a theological concept. Instead, you’ll know His deliverance deeply, in a personal way. And you’ll never again fear any adversary or hardship. Why? Because you will have come through your trial more than a conqueror, seated in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.
Right now, like Job at the beginning of his trial, you may know God only from hearing about Him, through sermons and Bible studies. That’s good, because Scripture tells us that is exactly where our faith comes from: hearing the Word of God. Yet, now God wants you to see Him as well. He wants you to develop an absolute trust that He has a divine plan designed for your life. And His eternal purpose cannot be thwarted by any demon in hell, nor by any monster that appears in your path.
Then, in the midst of your greatest trial, you’ll be able to testify of God’s goodness, as Job did. And you’ll quote confidently this great statement of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15).
Some Christians seek guidance for the smallest daily decisions. If you want to know whether to buy a brand of toothpaste, God would say to you, “Just be sure to brush every day.” There are certain things we don’t need His explicit guidance for, because we already know to do them by what we read in His Word.
Recently, I was in Turkey near the border of Iraq, praying about how World Challenge might help in the refugee crisis. People were fleeing the violent persecution by ISIS and flooding into the area, but the U.N. wasn’t present to provide any order. The need was overwhelming as desperate people arrived with nothing but the clothes they wore. I talked to one young boy who had seen his parents blown up by an ISIS landmine. I couldn’t imagine the trauma this child had been through.
On the flight home I prayed, “Lord, would you have World Challenge provide help here?” I immediately felt a holy conviction surging through me, saying, “Why are you praying about this? You know to help!” I realized, “Of course World Challenge is supposed to be here. We have the hope of the gospel, and we will pray in God’s resources to help. That has always been this ministry’s DNA. Feed the hungry? Bring comfort to the suffering? Make a difference in an orphan’s life? Why do I need to pray? Let’s go!”
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, ESV).
Make no mistake, I believe in prayer for guidance. But because we are God’s sheep and we know His voice, there are certain things we know to do. One of them is this: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27, NLT).
I love the mental picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd putting the lamb on His shoulders and carrying it to safety. I love the story of Christ feeding the hungry multitudes with bread and fish. And I marvel at the sight of Him bursting out of the tomb alive on Resurrection morning!
But there is one picture of Jesus that, frankly, doesn’t seem to fit. I wonder why God even put it in the Bible.
“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, ‘Is it not written: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it a den of robbers”?’” (Mark 11:15-17, NIV).
“The atmosphere of My Father’s house,” Jesus seemed to say, “is to be prayer. The aroma around My Father must be that of people opening their hearts in worship and supplication. This is a house for calling on the Lord.”
I do not mean to imply that the Jerusalem temple, built by Herod the Great, is the direct counterpart of our churches today. God no longer centers His presence in one particular building. In fact, the New Testament teaches that we are now His dwelling place; He lives in His people. How much more important, then, is Jesus’ message about the primacy of prayer?
The feature that is supposed to distinguish Christian churches, Christian people, and Christian gatherings is the aroma of prayer.
Does the Bible ever say anywhere from Genesis to Revelation, “My house shall be called a house of preaching”? Does it ever say, “My house shall be called a house of music”? Of course not. The Bible does say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
The honest truth is that I have seen God do more in people’s lives during ten minutes of real prayer than in ten of my sermons.
Jim Cymbala began Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn, he is a longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson and a frequent speaker at the Expect Church Leadership Conferences sponsored by World Challenge throughout the world.