IT’S NOT ABOUT A RELIGION
Let’s pray: Dear Jesus, give us ears to hear what your Holy Spirit wants us to hear this morning. May your words be heard and hidden in our hearts and may we have the courage to share them with the world that we come in contact with every day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Have you ever thought about the word religion or ever have someone ask you if you were religious? I have personally never cared for the word religion when it comes to my faith. It’s always seemed like something was missing. It didn’t truly encompass the entirety of my faith and what I believe. I have never liked the question because it seems like the person asking the question is giving the person asked an out. Are you religious? Sure, I go to church. I believe in God. I have never stolen anything or murdered anyone. The question are you religious seems to miss the point. It seems to be asked in order to not have to admit who it is we follow as Christians or to hide the fact that we may not be following the Christ we proclaim to be following.
On the website “All About Religion .org” it says that religion is a fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a group of people. Ever since the world began, man has demonstrated a natural inclination towards faith and the worship of anything he considered superior or difficult to understand. Religion consisted of trying to appease and get favors from the Supreme Being they feared. This resulted in performing rituals (some of them barbaric) and keeping traditions or laws to earn goodness and/or everlasting life.
When we look at what the major world religions believe there are two things that stand out that are very much different than what we as Christians believe. One, of course is that they do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God and two, they believe in a god that is impersonal and unknowable. A god who created the world and everything in it and has left us to our own devices. A god that doesn’t care about us and would never want to know us.
Interestingly enough but maybe not surprising is that Montifiore, the great Jewish scholar, said that the one thing which no Jewish prophet and no Jewish Rabbi ever conceived of is the conception of God actually going out in quest of sinful men, who were not seeking him, but who were turned away from him. They believed that God would be there when man turned to him but never envisioned a God who would pursue them.
We as Christians know that God is a knowable, personal God who wants to have a personal relationship with us and actually pursues us to have it.
Jesus talked about religion in Matthew 23. In Matthew 23 Jesus was addressing the religious leaders in Israel and he had some very serious condemnations to say about them. Jesus said the following things about the Pharisees:
He said, they are teachers of the law so obey them but do not do as they do because they say one thing and do something else, they are hypocrites. He also said, they pile burdens onto the people and do nothing to help them. Everything they do is to show off to others. They put themselves above others instead of serving others. They keep people from going into the kingdom of heaven by teaching false things. They made sure they paid their tithe for all to see but they neglected the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Finally, he said they were like whitewashed tombs. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. Outside they looked good, but inside they were evil and only pretended to be good.
Sounds like some of the same things that people say about Christians and the church today? They say we are hypocritical, judgmental, condescending, two-faced and the church is all about the money.
The authors of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters (Baker) claim that "Christianity has an image problem," In interviews with hundreds of 16- to 29-year-olds, coauthors Gabe Lyons and Barna Group president David Kinnaman discovered that nearly half of unchurched young Americans hold a bad impression of evangelical believers. They are especially bothered by, among other things, evangelicals' conservative political activism, hypocrisy, anti-homosexuality, and judgmentalism.
Another thing that Carey Nieuwhof says that hurts Christians today in the eyes of the world is that relatively few Christians actively pursue meaningful friendships with people who don’t share their faith. Between churches that offer programs 5 nights a week (leaving little time for Christians to make friends outside the church) and Christians who are afraid of the world, many Christians don’t pursue authentic relationships with non-Christians. Isn’t that a shame. God through Jesus has pursued us while we were yet sinners and even died on a cross for us and I think if we truly evaluated our own lives even this morning and counted how many non-Christian friends we really have and are investing in we might find ourselves lacking in that department. I know I do.
Mahatma Ghandi famously (and sadly) said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Maybe this was what Jesus was saying in Matthew 23. The Pharisees knew the scriptures, they knew the 10 commandments, they thought they knew what God was like, but Jesus was maybe saying, “I love your God, but I am not so sure about his followers. You Pharisees are so unlike my God, my heavenly Father, who sent me and I think at times he would say the same about us.
I believe Jesus was saying the same things about the seven churches in Revelation. To the church in Ephesus the Risen Christ said, “I know your works, your toil, your steadfast endurance, you have put false apostles to the test, but you have lost your first love. They had worked so hard on orthodoxy, making sure that the beliefs and rituals of being a Christian were followed that they lost love for each other. They used to be a band of brothers in fellowship together, but that orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship. It was all about a religion for them.
To the Church in Pergamum, the Risen Christ said that there were people within the church who hold to false teachings, teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. These were people within the church who said it was ok to conform to the world’s standards and to compromise with the practices and the morals of the world. When the church does that it is no different than the world. Romans 12: 2 says, Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. We as Christ followers are called to be set apart from the world in which we live. The church is to be look different than the world and when it doesn’t it’s no more than a religion.
Thyatira had much the same problem as Pergamum. There was a woman named Jezebel who taught compromise within the church. It may have been that the teaching of Jezebel was that the Christians did not need to be so exclusive in their worship of Jesus Christ. She would argue that there was no harm at all in conforming to the outward rituals and ceremonies of heathen worship. It may even help to convert the heathen to Christianity more easily. A person who walked into this church would be impressed with its abounding energy and generous liberality. It would be crowded, because its people come to it to be entertained instead of instructed, and to be soothed instead of challenged and confronted with the fact of sin and the offer of salvation. This is a picture of a highly successful Christian club rather than a real Christian congregation. More about a religion than about the Risen Christ.
To the church in Sardis, the Risen Christ says “Thou art dead.” This may have been an indication that ritual and ceremony often crowded out the true life underneath. The church at Sardis was untroubled by heresy or outside persecution. It had become a lazy church. It was so ineffective that it had ceased to matter in the life of the community. It had no witness for Christ, it was mere religion.
Which brings us to the final church that John wrote to. The church we are going to talk about this morning is the church of Laodicea. The Risen Christ calls it “lukewarm”. This church was indifferent. It had all kinds of organizations, programs, committees, activities but it had no power, no power of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul tells us, But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. In the Church of Laodicea there was no transformation of souls from darkness to life. They were more interested in social action than Gospel action, more interested in reformation than transformation, more interested in planning than praying. This church had gotten so far away from what the Lord founded it to be that it was nauseating to God and literally made Him sick.
The church of Laodicea had lost their dependence on Christ. It had become self-dependent and self-sufficient to the point that it had no need for the Holy Spirit. It was trying to be the church in its own power.
But this church had also lost its passion for the things of the Lord. They had reached a place where they were going through the motions and were unmoved by the things of the Lord. And when we try to do church without Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit it is only a religion.
Is this not the condition of the modern church? People going through the motions with no burning passion for the things of the Lord!
I think we need to examine ourselves (myself included) and our church. Are we apathetic or indifferent to the things of God? We may not be exactly dead because we are praying, preaching, singing, etc. But, are we on fire? Are we excited and passionate about, what we hear, and what we are doing and who we serve? Do we just come to church, take our seats and fold our arms? Do we ever feel the need to go to the altar to pray? To testify about what Jesus has done for us? Do we ever feel the need to do anything but come and go?
This morning through this letter to the Church in Laodicea the Risen Christ wants us to know that it is not about a religion, it’s about a relationship with himself. That is our BIG IDEA this morning. It is all about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That is what all those world religions have missed. They feel that God is impersonal, unknowable and would never want a relationship with his creation, but as Christ followers we know better. We know that Jesus pursues us with an everlasting love and wants a personal relationship with every single one of us.
Before we read our scripture this morning, I want to give you some background information on Laodicea. It was founded about 250 BC by Antiochus of Syria and is named after his wife, Laodice. It was only important because of its position. It was a hub out of which all the important roads leading out of it acted like spokes in a wheel. These roads that ran right through Laodicea were important destinations in the known world. Because of that it was one of the greatest commercial and strategic centers of the ancient world.
It set high up on a hill and at one point it was a fortress but it had one fatal flaw. All its water supply had to come by an underground aqueduct from springs no less than 6 miles away. This would be a perilous situation if they were ever besieged. Laodicea was also the last stop on the route that began in Ephesus as you see on the map above.
Laodicea had certain characteristics which have left their mark on the letter written to it. First, it was a great banking and financial center. It was so wealthy and independent that in 61 AD when it was devastated by an earthquake the city refused any help to rebuild from the Roman government. They rebuilt the city entirely from their own resources and in their own efforts. They had gained so much wealth and were so rich they had need of nothing.
It was also a great center of clothing manufacturing. The sheep that grazed around Laodicea was famous for their soft, violet-black, glossy wool. It mass produced cheap outer garments from it.
It was also a great medical center. There was a medical school there that was famous for two things throughout the world, an ointment for ear problems and an ointment for eye problems.
The words of the Risen Christ to the Church at Laodicea arise directly from the prosperity and skill in which they had so much pride and which in the minds of its citizens, and even in its church, eliminated the need for God.
Let’s look at the Risen Christ’s words to this church in Revelation 3:14-22:
The Risen Christ, just as in all the letters before it, identifies himself by using characteristics of himself. You can follow along as I read from Revelation 3. I will start with verse 14. This is what God’s word says: “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
The Risen Christ identifies himself to the church of Laodicea as the Amen, the faithful and true witness and the ruler of God’s creation. First, the Risen Christ is characterized by his dependability. Identifying himself this way recognizes that Jesus was reliable, true and trustworthy. When Jesus said he was the Amen he was affirming he was the answer to all the promises of God. As the Amen, Jesus was also the faithful and true witness. This description stands in stark contrast to the Laodicean church. Jesus is reliable, they are not. Jesus is faithful, they are not. Jesus was the true witness, but they had no real witness at all.
Second, Jesus said he is the ruler of God’s creation which means Jesus is the originator of God’s creation. In John 1:1-3 it says, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
And in Colossians 1:15-18 it says, The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Both these scriptures affirm Christ as the chief, the ruler and the originator of both creation and the church. He is Lord over both the material and spiritual realms. He is first in time and position. We can trust what Jesus says and we can trust what Jesus starts.
In verses 15-17, the Risen Christ gives his condemnation of Laodicea which harkens back to the characteristics that Laodicea was so proud of in themselves. Follow along as I read those verses.
15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
The Risen Christ says he knows their works. He knows what they are doing. He knows their spiritual condition. He said they are neither hot, meaning zealous or on fire for him nor are they cold, meaning lifeless. Instead they are lukewarm or indifferent and because of that he will spit them out of his mouth.
We can interpret this statement against the geographical background of Laodicea. In nearby Hierapolis, there bubbled up hot, medicinal waters like a spa. If you have ever been in a steam room or hot tub you know that the hot steam or water can soothe tired achy muscles. Then in nearby Colossae, cold, pure refreshing waters flowed. But if you remember we said earlier that their water supply for Laodicea came from 6 miles away. The water in Laodicea was barely drinkable and volcanic activity in the area left sulphuric deposits in the water, so it was not only unpleasant temperature wise, but it was even horrid smelling and almost toxic. This water had the effect of making the people sick and want to throw up. The water and the people of the church in Laodicea had a kind of nauseating quality that made the Risen Christ want to vomit them out of his mouth.
Jesus wants His church to be a place where people can relax and find healing, like a trip to a hot spring. He wants His church to be a place where people can be refreshed by His worship and His presence.
The Risen Christ was condemning their attitude of indifference and neutrality. He was saying with that attitude you are useless to me and even offensive. Indifference is the hardest thing to combat. Have you ever tried to persuade someone about something that they could care less one way or the other about? It’s not easy. If you feel strongly about something, it is possible to persuade someone who feels just as strongly the other way but it can be impossible to persuade someone if they just don’t care at all about what you are talking about.
To many people, Christianity and the Church have ceased to be relevant to them and they have become indifferent to it. Also, Christians have become indifferent and complacent in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. If we as Christians and in the church are indifferent in sharing the gospel how can we expect non-Christians to care about receiving it. To be neutral about our faith is to be an obstacle to Jesus. He works through us to pursue, grow and multiply disciples, to accomplish the Great Commission and that cannot be done if we are indifferent about our faith and what we believe.
The Risen Christ goes on to condemn them because they were saying they are rich, they have become wealthy and in need of nothing. Like their city, the church boasted about who they were and what they had. They claimed to have reached this lofty spiritual status on their own. They had gotten where they were without the assistance of anyone. They needed nothing and no one including the Lord.
The Risen Christ is saying, “Let me set the record straight.” Five marks of their true spiritual status are noted. They are wretched meaning miserable and unfortunate and because of that they are pitiful. They are poor meaning destitute and reduced to begging. There are in extreme poverty, spiritually. This was a slap at a city that bragged of its wealth, commerce and banking industry. And they are blind which of course slapped at their pride on having the cure for eye problems that their medical school had produced for the world.
Lastly, the Risen Christ said they were naked, which ridiculed a city that boasted of it famous glossy black wool. They were clothed with religion not clothed by faith with the garments of Jesus’ righteousness. This imagery and illustration would have hit them right between their eyes and where they lived. The Risen Christ exposed their spiritual destitution, deception and desperate condition. Jesus had judged the Laodiceans. Now they knew who they really are. They can no longer plead ignorance. Action is now called for.
We also need to look at our own lives and make sure we are not wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked spiritually either. We can fall into the same traps today and the Risen Christ is speaking to us this morning and asking us to examine our church and our lives so as to not fall into the same deception the Church at Laodicea did.
In verse 18, we see the counsel of the Risen Christ to the Church of Laodicea. Verse 18 says, 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
There is a sustained irony that confronts the arrogant attitude and smug satisfaction of the Laodicean Christian. The Risen Christ counsels them to make specific purchases from himself in precisely those areas where they are so certain they have no need. Jesus sternly instructs them to buy from HIM gold refined in the fire so that they may be rich. Only from Christ can true and lasting riches be purchased. The currency to buy that which will last is always the same. It is faith, trust, and radical dependence on Christ and Christ alone. The cure for spiritual poverty is first faith for salvation followed by faith for sanctification. We need the spiritual wealth that comes only by constant and abiding faith in Jesus. In John 15:4-5, it says, Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. Such wealth, unlike earthly riches, will endure forever. Day by day we need to renew our faith in the Risen Christ for everything we need.
Next the Risen Christ tells the church they need “white clothes so that they will be dressed and their shameful nakedness not be exposed.” White clothes symbolizes the righteousness of the Savior. The Laodicean Christians were walking around spiritually naked, completely unaware of their humiliation and their need for the pure white righteousness of Jesus. He invites them to adorn themselves in spiritual garments that is available only by calling upon the name of Jesus for salvation.
They are naked and lost in their sins. If they will come to Him, He will cloth them in robes of righteousness and they will no longer be naked and exposed in the sight of God. Nakedness in the ancient world was a sign of judgement and humiliation. To receive fine clothing was a symbol of honor and acceptance. Before Jesus we are all stripped naked and exposed for who we really are. We dare not stand in the filthy rags of our own righteousness and good deeds. We need Christ’s righteousness.
The Risen Christ tells them to buy ointment or salve to spread on their own eyes so they could see. They were famous for their own eye ointment but ironically the church was blind to its own spiritual condition. Such healing comes from looking to Christ and into his word for instruction and wisdom. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, says, All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. We need Christ’s remedy that comes from knowing and obeying the Word of God.
We need to honestly evaluate our own spiritual conditions daily and regularly. Spiritual compromise and complacency are “spiritual cataracts” that shut out the light of spiritual sight. We need to ask God to reveal our spiritual blind spots and the areas of sin in our lives that we can no longer see.
In verse 19 we see that all is not lost for this church in Laodicea. This is what God’s word says, 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.
Here we see the encouraging part of Christ’s discipline. He says that he loves the Laodicean Christian even if they have fallen away from him. Their sin does not quench his love for them just as our sin does not quench his love for us. Jesus says he corrects and disciplines those he loves. Discipline that educates and brings about repentance and change is what the Risen Christ offers the church at Laodicea. If they reject his discipline he will spit them out of his mouth but if they accept it he will come in and stay with them. Turning from our sin once is not enough. It must be a daily practice and habit in our lives. A community of daily repenting sinners characterizes healthy churches and healthy Christians.
So, we started off talking about religion. I believe that all the churches including the one at Laodicea were just playing church. They were being religious. They were no better than the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. They were probably hypocritical, judgmental, condescending, two-faced and all about the money.
But in verse 20, we see the remedy for religion. God’s word says, 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
We see that it is all about a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Jesus says Listen! Which means to look, to see, take note and to wake up. He says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” Jesus has taken up a position outside the door of the church and will remain there knocking and patiently waiting. If anyone, if just one hears my voice and opens the door I will come in to him and have dinner with him and he with me. What an amazing promise. Revival starts with one. It can start with me. It can start with you. Here we see the offer of Christ that he will always come in if we invite him.
John here uses the Greek word for dinner or the evening meal. The Greeks had three meals in a day, breakfast which was no more than a piece of dried bread dipped in wine. Lunch, the midday meal which was simply a picnic snack eaten by the side of the road or in the city square. You didn’t go home for it. Then there was dinner, the evening meal. It was the main meal of the day. You would linger at this meal and talk about the day you had after your work was done. This was a time of unhurried, intimate fellowship together. This is what Christ would share with the person who answered his knock. This is what a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would look like. This is what the Risen Christ wanted with the Laodicean Church and what he wants for us here at Idaville and for all of us individually as well. If you open the door, Jesus Christ will come in and linger long with you. He wants a personal, intimate relationship with you.
But there is also a human responsibility. I love this picture. It is probably one of two of my favorite pictures of Christ. You are probably familiar with this picture of Christ standing at the door of your heart knocking and wanting to come in and have a personal relationship with you. But you know what? He will not force himself in, he cannot force himself in. You notice there is no handle on the door outside your heart. Only you can let him in to your heart. Only you can ask Christ into your heart and start that personal relationship with him that he so much wants with you. It is the reason we were created. We were created to be in relationship with him not to just practice a religion or to be religious.
Maybe this morning you are ready to let Jesus into your heart. Romans 3:23 says for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all are in need of a savior because as Romans 6:23 says the wages of sin is death. Death is a separation from God and is not what we were created for. God’s Words says that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. In Romans 10:9, it says that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Maybe that is right where you are at this morning. Maybe you are ready to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and let him into your heart this morning. If so, on the back of your communication card that second next step is for you.
I hear Jesus knocking on the door to my heart and I want to let him in and be saved.
Maybe you here this morning and have already asked Jesus into your heart but confess that you have just been religious and have been playing church. You are ready this morning to start a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus. If so on the back of your communication card that last next step is for you.
I want to stop being religious and stop playing church and start a personal relationship with Jesus.
If you marked either of those next steps, please put your name on the front so Pastor Stuart and I can talk with you. We want to celebrate those decisions with you and help you on the road of discipleship.
Next, in verse 21, we see the promise of the Risen Christ.21 To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.
The promise of the Risen Christ to the victor is that they will sit with Christ on his victorious throne and rule and reign with Christ in his coming kingdom. In the eastern world the throne was more like a couch than a single chair. Imagine one day we will sit with Christ on his victorious couch and rule the nations with him. Heaven will be like the grandest living room/throne room.
Finally, every letter finishes with the same words. This what verse s 22 says, 22 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This phrase individualizes the messages of the letters. It says to whoever hears these words, “This means YOU.” If you have been here at Idaville and have heard Pastor Stuart speak on the previous six churches that means the Risen Christ has been speaking to you. There are now no excuses for us. We know and understand that the Risen Christ is calling us out of a religion, out of being religious and into a personal relationship with himself. I have been moved by these seven letters. Every time I have heard Pastor Stuart preach these letters I have noticed where I have fallen short. If you have heard these sermons and don’t believe that they are for Idaville church in this place and in this time then you don’t have ears to hear. I pray that we all have the ears to hear not only the commendations of the seven churches but also the condemnations to the seven churches. If we at Idaville Church can have ears to hear then this body of believers and our lampstand will never disappear.
As Gene and Roxie come to lead us in a final song and the ushers prepare to pick up the communication cards please bow your heads with me.
Dear Heavenly Father, again let us have ears to hear what your Spirit is saying to us. Let us leave this place encouraged by these letters to the seven churches. Help us to share the gospel of Jesus with those we come in contact with and not be ashamed of the gospel as it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. Take us from this place in your strength and protection in Jesus’ name, Amen.