Three letters to three churches

by Mike Ratliff

1 “To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. Revelation 3:1-2 (NASB) 

In our time it is very unusual for Christians to discuss apostasy. In fact, it makes some very uncomfortable to point out certain so-called “christian” leaders as being “heretics” or “apostates.” Why? The insidious poision called “Political Correctness” which has been implanted into our society by our enemy has taken a horrendous toll on our ability to be discerning as we are called to be in by our Lord in His Word. In this man-centered society, which has invaded deeply into our churches, the worst crime we can commit is to cause offense yet that very thing is a major mechanism within the preaching of the Law and Gospel that God uses to bring people to Christ. What has been the result? Apostasy springing up from all forms of “liberal christianity” has infected vast numbers of preachers and church leaders so that we are left with a wasteland of “Christian Evangelicalism” that is as spiritually dead as the “Christian Liberalism” that J. Gresham Machen contended with in his day calling it “another religion” from genuine Christianity. 

The marker for an apostate church in our time is a temporal focus. People within an apostate church are simply being religious. There was little to no evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in their people’s lives. In other words the transforming work of Sanctification (Romans 12:1-2) is not in evidence. These apostate churches may be stable in growth or even growing, but the focus within is on religiosity rather than the Cross of Christ and preaching the Gospel and the spiritual growth of believers. According to some sources I have read about this, many mark this era of apostasy as having begun in around 1900 and has only downgraded from there. The fruit of rank apostasy that calls itself true Christianity that we have all around us now has sprung from these apostate roots. However, God has sustained and keeps faithful His remnant throughout all of these difficult spiritual times.

In Revelation 3 there are three letters to three churches. The first letter is to the church at Sardis. The second letter is to the church at Philadelphia. The third letter is to the church at Laodicea. It is fascinating to see the contrasts between these three churches.

Our Lord tells Sardis in v1, ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.’ However, in v4 He says, ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.’ Then in v5 He says, ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.’ The words “He who overcomes” are the Greek words, Ὁ νικῶν. The word νικῶν, “overcomes” is based on the word νικος, which means victory. Νικων, then, is describing one who “gets the victory.” These are the ones who, even in the midst of apostate times, remain faithful, grow in Christ, and do not compromise with the growing apostasy all around them regardless of the pressures put on them to do so.

The contrast between the church at Sardis and the one in Philadelphia is striking. Our Lord said to them:

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this:
8 ‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. 9 Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ Revelation 3:7-13 (NASB) 

What we have here is a church νικων regardless of the fiery trials they are enduring. They are not compromising with the pressures of apostasy, but are overcoming or conquering in their obedience and faithfulness. They are cross-centered. They are keeping our Lord’s Word. In other words, they would be right along side those of us who stand firm with the necessity of adhering to Sola Scriptura. The promise to believers here is not that they will be kept from suffering, but that they will be sustained in the midst of it by the grace of God.

Then we have the last letter to the church at Laodicea, the lukewarm church. I call this the apostate church or the deceived church.

14 “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. 21 He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. Revelation 3:14-21 (NASB) 

This church thinks it is right in the middle of God’s will. It thinks it is in fine shape. The people think they are rich in God, but are paupers. They are spiritual, but it is not Christian. It is of the flesh and the devil. They claim they are the ones doing Christianity the right way, but are blind or deceived into not seeing the truth of their spiritual bankruptcy, which is that they are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. These are not regenerate people. They are not Christians, but are only religious. They are being called to faith by our Lord so that, by His grace, they would be able to “buy” gold refined by fire, so that they would be rich and white garments so they would be clothed and salve to anoint their eyes so that they may see. This is describing what real Christians have while the apostate, so-called “christians” are really only pretenders who have nothing. What is their solution? They are being called to hear the truth and repent. This is the result of hearing the preaching of the truth from God’s Word as the Holy Spirit applies it to the heart. They are being called to hear this, believe, and repent.

My brethren, I am convinced that in our time, most of what is called Christian is either like Sardis or Laodicea. There are very few Philadelphias out there. What we are being called to do is to stand firm and be overcomers regardless of what those all around us are doing. In this, we pray for the backsliders and false Christians to hear the truth, believe, and repent. We pray for the false Christian leaders to be exposed and rebuked. We pray for God to continue to preserve us as He works out His plan for the Church. God’s will be done!

Soli Deo Gloria!