I’m currently doing some work on Revelation 2-3 for an event that I am speaking at this summer. It is the section where Jesus addresses seven churches and speaks into their spiritual condition. Often we look at each of those churches in isolation. But as you put them together it is hard to escape one clear lesson: in Jesus’ eyes a church can be very different from its reputation or self-image. That can be deeply challenging. So Jesus says to the church in Sardis- “I know your deeds; you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1). Or consider his words to the church in Laodecia- “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17). I guess you can imagine them- or their contemporary equivalents. The churches in Sardis and Laodecia would presumably have large budgets, extensive ministries and plenty of young people They would be the sort of church that people had heard about- and they loved living off their reputation. And yet in Jesus’ eyes they simply earn a whole load of unappealing adjectives.
The reverse is also true- and potentially encouraging. Look at what Jesus says to the church in Smyrna- “I know your affliction and your poverty- yet you are rich!” (Revelation 2:9). Or hear him speak to those in Philadelphia- “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” (Revelation 3:8) Here are two churches that, I guess, would have minimal budgets and programmes because they are simply seeking to survive persecution. They probably wouldn’t have much of a reputation in contemporary terms and yet they are the only two churches in this section that don’t earn any form of rebuke from the Lord.
Of course, you have to be careful with that. I’m not suggesting that you can do an equation- large and lively means Jesus is displeased whereas small and struggling means Jesus is delighted. You can’t say that automatically- and the Bible is interested in numerical growth because it should mean people being saved. But I suspect there is something to learn. Our instinct is probably to assume that size of budget and liveliness of congregation is a guarantee of some kind of spiritual health whereas Revelation warns us that this isn’t necessarily so.
And I find that challenging. Here is my shameful secret- I want to lead a church with a reputation for being lively and successful. I’ve been conscious of feeling pressure ahead of re-emerging from lockdown and especially the autumn. We’ve become a bit smaller as a church over the past few years- largely as a result of planting a church and encouraging other members to join new congregations more local to them. A pandemic hasn’t helped. Some of our activities that were flourishing now feel a bit more sparse. That can lead to a degree of pressure to somehow regain reputation, perhaps particularly in a city like Oxford.
But Revelation takes the pressure off. To run after reputation is utter folly.
But meditating on Revelation has helped me to see the folly of that. Reputation probably means nothing. It is the “Well Done” from the One whose eyes are like blazing fire that is worth running after.
So what should be our aim as a church in the months ahead? We have recently been considering 2 Corinthians on Sundays and I was struck by Paul’s purpose- “We make it our goal to please him.” (2 Corinthians 5:9). As you consider Revelation 2-3 that surely has to be the chief aim of a church. If Jesus were still writing letters we would want to get the one for Smyrna not Sardis. What does that pleasing the Lord look like for a church? Actually the New Testament uses that phrase quite a lot- and my plan is to write something on this next week. But- for now- let’s remember to run after a reputation in the eyes of the only one who really matters.