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Always on the Brink
We are always on the brink of losing authentic spiritual life. To retain it, we must remain in intimate relationship with God and live in the power of the Spirit.


Revelation 3:1-6 This, the shortest of the seven messages, is addressed to the guardian angel and, through the angel, to the church in the first-century city of Sardis. At that time, A.D. 96, the population of Sardis was between 60,000 to 100,000. And like the other six messages, this one speaks beyond that particular situation and time to all of Jesus' churches in all periods of history.

Always on the Brink

"Dead."

"You are dead."

"You have a name, a reputation, that you are alive, but you are dead."

The church in Sardis was not what the unbelieving world would call a dead church. Nor was it what the other churches of Asia Minor would call a dead church. It was a very active church. All kinds of events were taking place. All kinds of committees were meeting to discuss and plan and strategize. The church in Sardis was well organized, doctrine was sound, sacraments were celebrated regularly and orderly. The church in Sardis was the largest of the seven. Services were well attended. It certainly was the wealthiest—"fabulously wealthy," as one commentator put it.

"Dead," says the Lord of the church.

"You are dead."

"I know you have a reputation for being alive, but I, your Lord, tell you that you are dead."

"I know your deeds," says Jesus. Deeds reveal the true nature of a congregation's and an individual's spirituality. Jesus knows the deeds of all His churches and of all His disciples. And of the church in Sardis He says, "I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (3:2).

What does He mean? He could be saying that this church never finishes anything it starts. It has great ideas, great plans, great goals and objectives but little follow-through. Not so hard to imagine, is it? Such a condition reflects spiritual lethargy and decay. It means the people did not take the time to discern the will of God. Or, they did not count the cost before making such grand schemes. Or, they lacked perseverance to see things through to completion.

Thus many commentators speak of the church at Sardis as half-hearted, superficial, "content with mediocrity"*1) or even "the incarnation of mediocrity."*2) "I know your deeds and I have not found them complete in the sight of my God." You never finish anything.

Or Jesus could be saying that their deeds are not, in fact, the deeds of God. For all their busyness, their deeds are not oriented toward the living God and His glory, His kingdom, His purpose. That is not too hard to imagine either, is it? In our busyness we can easily lose sight of why we are doing what we are doing. Or, as I should say, lose sight of for whom we are doing what we are doing.

It happens every Christmas. People celebrate with enthusiasm and joy but forget what it is all about. As the poster asks, "Whose birthday is it anyway?" It all looks alive but it totally misses the point.

We can have a well-planned, smoothly running worship service. We can go through the whole service and miss the point! For whom are we doing this? Did our actions and words bring joy to God? Was God blessed by it all? We can sing the hymns and choruses with great gusto. We can even let the music move our bodies, tap our feet, raise our hands, lift our heads and miss the whole point. Were we really thinking about the One of whom we were singing?

We can pray using powerful biblical images. We can build from one rousing phrase to the next and not really pray. We can preach and miss the whole point. I can work hard to deliver a carefully crafted sermon and never really preach, never really hold before you the risen and living, holy and merciful Lord. We can serve as elders and deacons, as Sunday school teachers and small group leaders. We can work hard and not be about the deeds of God. And after our term of service wonder, "What did it all mean?" Lutheran scholar Gerhard Krodel calls it "ecclesiastical sleepwalking."*3)

"I know your deeds and I have not found them complete in the sight of my God."

Or Jesus could be saying that for all the church's great programming they were not doing the one great deed they, and any church, is supposed to be doing; that for all their beehive of spiritual activity they were not doing evangelism.*4) After all, lampstands exist for one reason—to give light, to burn in the darkness. "Not complete" means not doing the one thing I have called you to do in the city—make disciples.

George Caird says of the church in Sardis, the church with the reputation of being alive, that it was "the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity."*5) Unlike the other churches of the Roman province of Asia, the Sardis church was not under pressure. They were not having to face persecution. Why? The church had silently accommodated itself to the injustice and immorality of the city. In particular, it had silently accommodated itself to the sexual mores of the city. John White argues that the single biggest reason why the church in North America is not effective in evangelism is that we have silently accommodated to the sexual mores of our time; that far too many disciples of Jesus are trapped in secret sexual sins. *6) The Sardis church was not facing persecution because it was not raising its voice. It was "too innocuous to be worth persecuting."*7)

"Dead."

"I know your reputation for being alive, but you are dead."

The lesson of Jesus' message to Sardis can be summarized in the phrase, "always on the brink," or "ever on the edge." Every congregation and every individual disciple is always on the brink of losing authentic spiritual life.

Why? Why are we "always on the brink"? Because of the nature of the Christian life. Because of the dynamics of the life into which Jesus Christ calls us. It is a life that can only be lived in relationship—in relationship with Jesus through His Holy Spirit. It is a life we cannot live apart from Him. It is a life we cannot sustain in and of ourselves. It is a super-natural life that requires regular super-natural resources. Drift out of, or ignore, or cut the relationship and the life drains away. In John 15, Jesus pictures the Christian life in terms of a vine and its branches: "I am the vine," He says, "and you are the branches." "Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; for apart from me you can do nothing."

"Apart from me you can do nothing." We can be busy and active. We can go through the motions. We can perform all the various duties associated with life in Jesus and do them all in such a way that we gain a reputation for being alive. But apart from intimacy with Him we will never have authentic life in us. Apart from Him, cut off from the vine, we die. It is as simple as that. And that is why we are always on the brink of losing it.

One of my favourite analogies for the Christian life is water-skiing. What do we need to water-ski? Just a few basics: skis, a rope and a boat. The color of the boat is irrelevant; so is its style. The rope need not be the finest—just durable enough to keep us attached to the boat. As long as I hold on to the rope I will be able to ski. But drop the rope and it is over. And here is the hitch: for a few seconds it appears that I can go on without the boat. If the boat is going at top speed, when I drop the rope I might even stay on the surface for 30 or 40 yards. It looks good—"Hey, mom, no rope!"—but in the end I sink.

We are always on the brink of going down, of losing authentic life. We have entered a life we cannot live apart from relationship, apart from the power that flows from relationship.

… although it is not too late, we must act immediately.

Once individual disciples and congregations no longer live in the power of Jesus' Spirit, the forms may remain but the inner reality will be gone. And we find ourselves attempting for God only what our human resources allow. We no longer push ourselves out into the deep water where we are beyond our own resources. We settle for being comfortable and safe. And like the disciples in Sardis we are no longer able to distinguish between "the peace of well being and the peace of death." *8)

"I know your reputation for being alive. But I tell you, you are dead."

So how do we keep from sliding over the brink? How do we stay alive?

In His message to the church in Sardis Jesus gives five urgent commands. Note, by the way, the grace that the giving of commands implies. All is not lost. Jesus would not have commanded them to do anything if the death was final. Because of grace we can begin again.*9) Grace means that the boat comes around to pick us up when we have sunk. Grace means the offer of the rope to pull us back to the surface.

Yet, although it is not too late, we must act immediately. Jesus speaks of Himself as a thief in the night. "If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you." As Earl Palmer puts it, "We do not have time to prepare for an orderly, scheduled audit of our books."*10) Jesus' five commands are, therefore, sounded with a note of urgency. The five commands are:

1. Wake up!

2. Strengthen what remains.

3. Remember what you received.

4. Keep it.

5. Repent.

Wake up! Jesus says it twice in this message—"wake up" (3:2, 3:3). Most translations miss the impact of the literal meaning of Jesus' command. It should be rendered "Keep on being watchful." Or, "Become a person who is watchful." Yes, Jesus does command the Sardis Christians to wake up, but the problem is they have died because they failed to be watchful. We must stay vigilant since we are always on the brink.

The exhortation to watchfulness would have carried special weight with the believer in Sardis. Two times in its history the city fell because of lack of vigilance. The city was built on a mountain; the acropolis built on a spur of the mountain. It seemed invincible. The city was never taken by direct military assault. But twice it became too comfortable, too at ease. In 549 B.C., Cyrus captured the acropolis by sending a climber up a crevice of one of the perpendicular walls of the fortress. And then in 218 B.C., Antiochus the Great captured the city as a band of 15 men sneaked up to the wall and into the fortress, opening the gates from within.*11) The history of Sardis teaches us that we are never more in danger of falling than when feeling comfortable and at ease.

"Keep on being watchful." Is not that the exhortation we hear Jesus give over and over again in the Gospels? "Stay alert" (Matthew 24:42, 44). "Do not let the lamps burn out" (Matthew 25:13). "Watch and pray" (Matthew 26:41). "Blessed are the servants whom the Master finds awake when he comes" (Luke 12:35-37). Wake up and stay alert!

Strengthen what remains. To what is Jesus referring here? What remains? If the church is dead, what remains? Probably the external, the forms of the Christian life—the committees, the ritual, the routine, the disciplines. Jesus never says that the externals are to be thrown away. A formless, structureless Christian life is not possible. Have you ever noticed how so-called "informal" worship services always follow the same "informal form." Jesus is not down on form. It is just that the forms and the structures must be strengthened, made to do what they were set up to do—to lead us to Jesus Himself, to attach us to Jesus, to root us in His life.

I think it would be healthy for every congregation to periodically (say, every five years) declare that all programs and activities stop and only be started up again if it can be demonstrated that they are in fact accomplishing their biblical purpose. Perhaps we ought to do the same with our own personal lives. Periodically stop everything and only start up that which keeps us in relationship with Jesus and fulfills His purpose for us. Strengthen what remains.

Remember. How often do we hear this exhortation? Literally, "Keep on remembering and do not forget." What is the "what" we are to keep on remembering? It is what we received and heard. We heard the Good News. And, when we heard with faith, we received. Received what? The Holy Spirit, the very life of Jesus, the embodiment of the kingdom of God.

Throughout the Scripture the word "received" is associated with the Spirit.*12) In the Upper Room Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22). On the day of Pentecost Peter says, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). When Paul visited Ephesus he did not sense the vitality that should be present in an authentic church so he asked, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (Acts 19:2). We could list many other references.

The point is, Jesus calls us to remember the essential reality of the Christian life: the very life of God who indwelt the body of Jesus now indwells us. The human personality has now become the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19; 3:16).

Is this why Jesus introduces Himself the way He does in this message? "These are the words of Him who holds the seven spirits of God" (3:1). The phrase is also used in the opening verses of Revelation: "Grace and peace to you from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before His throne, and from Jesus Christ" (1:4, cf. also 4:5, 5:6). Are we being told that there are seven Holy Spirits? No. In Revelation the number seven is the number of completeness, the number of fullness, the number of essence, the number of reality. According to theologian Paul K. Jewett, the phrase "seven spirits of God" is a way of saying "the real Spirit of God in all His fullness, in the unity of His manifold energy and grace."*13)

Do not let go of the presence and power of the Spirit.

Jesus Christ holds "the seven spirits of God" and can, therefore, and does give the Spirit to His people. The Spirit of life (see Romans 8:2), as Paul calls Him, the Spirit who breathes on dry bones and makes them come alive (see Ezekiel 37). "Remember what you have received."

Keep it. Literally, "Keep on keeping it." Hold on. Do not let go of the presence and power of the Spirit. Keep on responding to His movements within. Do not grieve the Spirit (see Ephesians 4:30). Do not quench the Spirit (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19). What Jesus is telling the disciples in Sardis, and us, is that we cannot open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit once and leave it at that. We need to keep on daily opening ourselves up. "Keep on being filled" is the way the apostle Paul puts it (see Ephesians 5:18). Daily remembering and grabbing hold of or being grabbed hold of by the Spirit.

Repent. Stop. Turn around and embrace what you know. Receive again what you have received. "Do it now." That is the sense of the word Jesus uses. "Do it now" because we are always on the brink.

What are the signs that a congregation or individual disciple is, in fact, being watchful, strengthening what remains, remembering, keeping hold of, repenting? What are the signs of spiritual vitality?

Nine "vital signs"

The first and foremost "vital sign" is confessing that "Jesus is Lord" (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-3). The confession is that the crucified son of a carpenter is alive, risen from the dead and reigns as Lord of lords. There is no way anyone can deduce this. It is always the work of the Spirit.

Second, calling the Holy, sovereign, awesome, majestic Creator "Abba," "Father." The New Testament calls the Holy Spirit the "spirit of adoption," who enables us adopted children of God to say from the heart what Jesus says: "Abba, Father" (see Romans 8:16).

A third vital sign is the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (see Galatians 5:16-25). As individuals and as a congregation we will, if alive, manifest in our weakness and brokenness the character of Jesus.

Fourth: unity. Not uniformity—that is death. But unity in Jesus, unity in the Body of Christ. The walls and barriers that ordinarily divide start coming down. We realize that when we belong to Jesus we belong to everyone else who belongs to Jesus. We are bound to each other in a bond that transcends family, race, culture, citizenship, economics, politics. As Jesus says, "By this all people will know you are my disciples, that you love one another" (John 13:35).

The fifth vital sign: compassion. The compassion of the One who stands in our midst; Jesus' compassion for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized of society. And most of all, Jesus' compassion for those who do not yet know Him. A church that loses its evangelistic zeal is slipping over the brink no matter how big or active it is. Jesus promises in His message to Sardis that He will confess the name of those who overcome before His Father and His angels (see 3:5). Jesus is echoing what He says in Luke 12:8—"Everyone who confesses me before men, the Son of Man shall confess him or her also before the angels of God." The desire for others to find Jesus is an unmistakable vital sign.

The sixth sign is reproduction, growth. Not just in terms of greater attendance but in terms of new believers. Authentic life is reproductive. If a church is truly alive, people will be meeting Jesus and experiencing new birth.

Authentic relationship with the Lord of Life will issue in emotion: we rejoice with Him, we weep with Him.

The seventh sign is emotion, feeling, passion. I quote British preacher G. Campbell-Morgan:

"I am alive. And because I am alive,

I weep,

I sing,

I laugh,

I mourn.

It is the dead that have no tears,

no laughter,

no music,

no mourning." *14)

Do not confuse emotion with emotionalism. Emotionalism is emotion for emotion's sake, feeling for feeling's sake. By emotion, or passion, we are referring to the natural response to grace and truth. Authentic relationship with the Lord of Life will issue in emotion: we rejoice with Him, we weep with Him.

Eighth, the desire to be holy. Or as Jesus puts it in the message to Sardis, to desire to walk with Him "clothed in white garments." Walk is a way of saying "discipleship." White garments is a way of saying "in purity." Passion to be like Jesus—holy.

And ninth, an ironic vital sign, the willingness to die. The willingness to lose our lives for Him. The willingness to endure ridicule or rejection or persecution for His sake. To spend our time, our money, our gifts for His kingdom.

After listing just those nine "vital signs" you may be saying, "I cannot live up to that." Well neither can I. And that is precisely the point! We cannot live the new life in Jesus without the super-natural resources of His Spirit. Jesus never says, "Go, be new people; go, be alive!" He always says, "Come, come to me, drink of me, eat of me, receive from me the life-giving Spirit of God." It is the Spirit alive in us who makes us alive!

That is what the church in Sardis failed to remember and keep. That is why, for all its activity, it was in reality dead.

Let me suggest three questions the message to Sardis poses for us.

Question one: "What place does Jesus occupy in my life?" What places does He occupy in my thinking, feeling, daydreams, planning, spending? What place does the crucified Jesus occupy? What place does the resurrected Jesus occupy? What place does the exalted Jesus occupy? What place does the coming Jesus occupy? That form of the question is the most revealing: "What place does the coming Jesus occupy?" Does His promise to come bring joy or terror? When He speaks of Himself as the thief in the night, is it music to your soul? Then you are alive! When the "alive" hear Him say, "Behold, I am coming," they cry out, "Even so, Lord Jesus, come!"

Question two: "If Jesus were to take away His Spirit would it make any difference?" The fact is for many congregations and disciples the removal of the Spirit would make little difference, for they operate unaware of and independent from Him. When you are alive in Jesus the removal of the Spirit is devastating. For you know that He is your life.

Question three: "When was the last time I shared Jesus with another person?" I am deeply convicted by that question. We are here to bear witness to Jesus in the city, to confess Him before the world. "When was the last time I shared Jesus with someone who does not yet know Him?" A book title that helped me a number of years ago is The Embarrassed Believer, subtitled, "Reviving Christian Witness in an Age of Unbelief."*15) Isn't that how it is, embarrassed to speak of Jesus? The author is Hugh Hewitt, then co-host of the United States Public Broadcasting System program Life and Times, which usually aired right after The News Hour with Jim Lehrer. Hewitt identifies the reasons why we disciples are embarrassed, "ashamed" is the biblical word, to speak of Jesus in public. The book is written, he says, to prod "Christians to be Christians, proudly, and if necessary, defiantly." "Any belief," says Hewitt, "shorn of the confidence to live it publicly is not a belief at all but a posture. And postures are easily overwhelmed."*16)

How grateful I am for Jesus' promise, "I will not erase your name from the Book of Life." He is telling us that those who want to be alive, who do not settle for mediocrity, will never be removed from the rolls of the kingdom of God. *17)

We are always on the brink; which is why Jesus identifies Himself the way He does: "The one who holds the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars." In one hand the stars, the angels of the churches, and somehow, the churches themselves. In the other hand the Spirit, the life-giving Spirit of God. And so we pray, "Jesus bring your two hands together and cause us to live."*18)

Endnotes

1) Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 48.

2) Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, 95.

3) Gerhard A, Krodel, Revelation (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament; Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1989), 132.

4) G.K. Beale thinks is the major problem in all the churches. See pp. 228ff and 275ff.

5) Beale, Revelation, 45.

6) John White, Eros Redeemed: Breaking the Stranglehold of Sexual Sin (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1975).

7) Ibid.

8) Caird, Commentary on the Revelation, 48.

9) As Robert MacAfee Brown used to say, "grace means you can begin again."

10) Palmer, 1, 2, 3 John, Revelation, 145.

11) Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans , 2001), 134.

12) John R. W. Stott, What Christ Thinks of the Church: Insights from Revelation 2-3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1958), p. 92.

13) Paul K. Jewett, lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary.

14) G. Campbell Morgan, A First Century Message to Twentieth Century Christians (London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902), 154.

15) Hugh Hewitt, The Embarassed Believer: Reviving Christian Witness in an Age of Unbelief (Nashville, Tenn.: Word Publishing, 1998). My friend Caryn Jacobs brought this book to my attention.

16) Hewitt, Embarassed Believer, xiii.

17) Hemer, Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 148-9.

18) Michael Wilcox, I Saw Heaven Opened, 53.

Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, Vancouver, B.C. Regent College Publishing, © 2004. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.

Darrell W. Johnson is the associate professor of pastoral theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. A popular conference and retreat speaker, he has also served as the preaching pastor for a number of congregations in North America and the Philippines and an adjunct professor of preaching for the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Originally published in Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation, 2004.

 

 
 
 
 

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