Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Bible Church. He has been pastor since 1980 of this wonderful congregation. Ed Stetzer and I were honored when he agreed to provide an essay for The Mission of God Study Bible.
He is an award-winning author of more than twenty books, a celebrated international conference speaker, and the featured speaker on three radio programs: The Moody Church Hour, Songs in the Night, and Running to Win. These programs are available on the Moody Broadcasting Network, the Bible Broadcasting Network, Trans World Radio and many Christian radio stations around the world.
A Letter to the Church by Erwin Lutzer
“Be alert and strengthen what remains, which is about to die, for I have not found your works complete before My God” (Revelation 3:2). In these words from the lips of Jesus, we have the marching orders for the church of the 21st century; here we have commands addressed to us in our culture and in the midst of our successes and failures. Tragedy awaits us if we don’t listen to what Jesus has to say.
Jesus begins this letter to this first century congregation in Sardis with this diagnosis, “you have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (3:1). Here was a church that was thought highly of in the community, but when Jesus applies His stethoscope to the congregation He cannot discover a heartbeat. The good works of the church members were like grave clothes that masked the marks of death. They had form without power, a reputation without life.
Today we evaluate churches on the basis of their numbers, their budgets, or by the many different opportunities they offer for worship and service. But, alas, too often our impact on the moral and spiritual decline of our culture is scarcely noticed. Tragically, in many instances churches are being closed either because of divisions, lack of funds, or declining interest. This is not a credit to Christ and His reputation is tarnished in our communities. This deserves our tears.
However, all is not lost. Although the church in Sardis was dead, Jesus did point to some signs of life, “But you have a few people in Sardis who have not defiled their clothes” (3:4). If He cannot work through the entire congregation to restore life to this church, Jesus will work through a small group of people who refused to compromise with their culture. He will work with those whose hearts are right with Him and who are faithful to their calling. Jesus now prescribes a remedy for this congregation.
First, He invites the people to wake up! In other words, they are to admit to the depressing reality of their lifelessness; they should begin by assessing their own weakness and decline of influence. They should not live with the false assurance that they are healthy when in point of fact, spiritually they are near death. Honesty is the first step.
Second, Jesus commands, “Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (v. 2). Those who had remained faithful could help restore those who had succumbed to spiritual lethargy. There were some people and programs in the church that were worth preserving, if only they were infused with new life. Today in our churches there is much that can encourage us; there are still signs of life, but too often there is also the stench of death.
Third, Jesus asks them to remember what they had received. Tragically, many in our own churches have forgotten the Gospel; they have imbibed substitutes for the one message that can breathe life into a dying corpse. If only we would remember that it is at the foot of the cross that the church lives and breathes; it is only through a clear gospel both spoken and lived out by members of the congregation that a church is saved from becoming irrelevant.
Finally, they are to repent, that is turn from sin and toward Christ. They were to ask God for a renewed love for Him and confess that their idols were an offense to the God they claimed to love. This would be painful but necessary, and in the long run their church would be revived.
Jesus taught that the church was to be in the world but not of the world. In other words, the church is to be in the world like a ship is in the ocean. But when the ocean gets into the ship, we know that there is trouble ahead. Today we must admit with sorrow that the church is taking on water. We cannot rescue men and women from the churning water if we ourselves are going under. We must repent of our acceptance of the world’s values of money, self-fulfillment, and entertainment.
What is God saying to the church today? We, like many of the saints at Sardis, have soiled our garments by moral compromise. This weakens us and nullifies our witness. How can congregations awash with the guilt of moral impurity witness with credibility to the watching world? And what about the doctrinal compromises we make when we concentrate only on the more positive aspects of Christian teaching and ignore the more difficult issues of judgment and hell? We have sold out to the culture, and now are blind to our own compromises and sins.
What should we do? We must begin by embracing the words of Jesus for ourselves. Congregations must humbly assess their true spiritual state before God. We must let Jesus apply His stethoscope to our hearts and give us a true reading of our spiritual health.
This must be followed by repentance not just individually but as a corporate body. As a church we have the responsibility to identify and “strengthen what remains.” This is not a one-time event but an ongoing pattern of faithfulness, continually revisiting our spiritual condition.
And if we don’t do this? Jesus’ warning is ominous, “But if you are not alert, I will come like a thief and you have no idea at what hour I will come against you” (3:3). This is not a reference to the return of Christ at the end of the age but rather a warning to the church that He will return to judge them. He will come to rebuke and discipline us. Today there is no church where Sardis once was; this is a reminder that we cannot take our own future for granted.
Read the promise Jesus makes to those who are faithful, “they will walk with Me in white, because they are worthy” (3:4). These people will never have their names blotted out from the book of life; further, Jesus will acknowledge their names “before My Father and before His angels” (v. 5).
Jesus ends His letter to Sardis by saying: “Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:6).
Are we listening?