Thursday, June 7, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Out of Sardis (part 1)


Jesus actually vomits in Revelation 3.


We've all been reminded of that more than once—that the literal rendering of Rev 3:16 is, “Because you are luke warm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” I suppose it’s a good enough rendering, although preachers sometimes imply an intimate familiarity with this particular Greek word, despite this being its only use in the New Testament.

But either way, none of us wants to make Jesus puke; that much is obvious. And what triggers this awful response in our Lord? Why, our lukewarmness. Therefore: don’t be luke warm. Be excited, be active, wrap yourself in a flurry of religious activity, anything to avoid even the appearance of luke warmness.

The context of this dire warning, of course, is the letter from Jesus to the church in Laodicea—the last of seven letters in Revelation 2-3 to seven different churches in Asia minor. These letters generally follow a standard format and include, among other things, praise for the church, a rebuke of the church, a warning or threat, and an exhortation. That’s the general outline followed by all seven letters. Except that there are two churches with nothing negative said about them—no rebuke, no threat, no warning. Nothing but encouragement, approval, and exhortation.

And then, of course, there’s Laodecia, which has nothing positive said about it, further reinforcing just how bad it is to be luke warm. In fact, if there’s any church we don’t want to emulate, it’s Laodecia. And so we don’t. Church growth and congregation health gurus regularly remind us—and we remind each other—of Revelation 3:16 and how we need to avoid becoming another luke warm church in danger of being vomited out.

Instead, we try as hard as we can to be just like the church in Sardis. And every day there are new methods and books explaining how to be more Sardisian in our approach and new success stories of churches who have grown as a result.

There’s just one problem: Sardis is not one of the two churches for which Jesus had no rebuke and no threat. In fact, it was one of the two churches for which Jesus had no commendation, no praise—nothing good to say at all. Only the harshest of reproofs and most fearful of warnings. In the name of avoiding one deadly hole, we’ve been going deeper and deeper into another. Luther famously wrote of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Today, we might instead speak of a Sardisian Captivity of the Church.

This topic is so near to me that I've begun a second blog all about how the church’s conventional wisdom has shifted with—and bowed to—the world and its culture, how the books, the experts, the buzzwords, and the movements all assume what the church assumed in Sardis, namely that the way to gauge where God is at work is to use the world’s understanding of life, marketing, and mob psychology.

This new blog will not a discernment blog dedicated to calling people/churches out, naming names, and anathematizing masses of sell-outs and heretics. There are more than enough blogs out there doing that. Instead, it will be dedicated to shining light on the unrelenting trend we see in Western Christianity, a trend of the Church trying to look like Sardis, instead of Smyrna or Philadelphia.

How will we go about this task? Here’s how I see it (although it may shift mid-course): I will begin with a series of mini-studies on the letter of Jesus to the church in Sardis, drawing application to our churches today, then move on to survey some of the other letters in Revelation 2-3. When that is done, I will begin to add other contributors as we begin to apply these concepts more specifically (if you would like to contribute, let me know). The goal of this new blog (http://outofsardis.blogspot.com) is not just to raise the alarm about this disastrous trend in churches big and small, but also to provide insight and promote discussion about how we can head back out of Sardis.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but together we will hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach Bartels

5 reader comments:

Cory said...

Zach,

Your post led me to carefully reread Rev. 3:1-6. Thanks for that.

One minor observation. It's not entirely accurate to say that Jesus said nothing positive about this church. He said, "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." Not that this detracts from your point, I think.

So here's my question. What you wrote conforms to prior things you've written expressing (or implying) your great concern that the church (in general) is or wants to be like Sardis. So, I'm curious—in your pastoral experience, has your local church been prone to be like Sardis? The reason I ask is that the Sardisian problem is far, far away from the church ponds I swim in, whether denominationally (American Baptist) or locally (Central Pennsylvania). In both of those cases, there are painfully few churches that could possibly have a reputation of being alive, much less ones that look alive but are actually dead. It's not a temptation in my church today. Do things look different where you are? Why is this such a pressing issue for you?

Pastor Zach said...

Hey, Cory, thanks for your thoughts. I would argue that Jesus does not have anything good to say about this church, although he does mention a remnant present (there's always a remnant present) and exhorts them to hold fast; when Jesus comes as a thief, they won't be caught off guard. The OT is full of similar rebukes of Israel as a whole, while acknowledging the existence of a remnant. Also, every chart I've seen of the seven letters (and I've seen a bunch) shows two churches with no commenation (Sardis and Laodicea) and two with no rebuke (Smyrna and Philadelphia).

As far as whether I have pastoral experience with this in our denominational context or in an even narrower context: YES! YES! I don't mean that there are a ton of churches with the reputation for life. Rather, there are a few of them around and all the little churches hold them up like they are what we're aspiring to. This is true of every denominational/seminary/parachurch group in which I've had expereicne; I'm not singling out the group to which I belong. It's the new common sense. We bring in the Sardisians to speak at our "equipping events," we buy their books and study them in little groups of pastors. We buy the kit and apply it to our churches, only to see that it never really does the trick.

In a few weeks, I'll be posting over on that other blog about how many times I've seen churches sign up for such things, only to be surveyed to death and lose a bunch of money paying a "consultant." And at the end of the day, they're the same, only a little wiser, a little more jaded, and sometimes more hopeless.

Have you seen this in your neck of the woods?

chamblee54 said...

There is some new information about Revelations.
http://chamblee54.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/revelation-revealed/
What do you think about this?

Cory said...

Zach,

I am definitely acquainted with the phenomenon of little churches admiring (or envying) big churches and wanting to be like big churches. I've also seen the phenomenon (which overlaps but is not entirely identical to the first) of churches that appear to be "dead" admiring/envying churches that appear to be "alive." And I too have seen the apparently "dead" churches seeking the strategy and wisdom that comes from or purportedly has been adopted by the apparently "alive" churches. So I'm with you that far. But I have a couple of qualifications.

First—and I think this is very important—the problem with the church at Sardis is not that it had a reputation for being alive. It's that it had a reputation for being alive but was actually dead. Not all churches that appear to be alive are Sardis. Some of them—I hope to God most of them—are actually alive. And in fact, churches that have a well-deserved reputation for being dead ought to desire to emulate churches that have a well-deserved reputation for being alive. That could be part of their repentance. The appearance of success is not Sardisian. The ingenuine appearance of success (defined by Jesus) is.

Second, in my personal experience as a pastor, I have encountered another problem much more frequently than Sardisian churches. I wouldn't be surprised if I am in the minority on this nationally, though I don't know. (For example, there can be big differences between church culture in small, conservative towns and in white-collar suburbs.) The problem I have seen more often is contentedness with being dead (and looking dead) so long as things are comfortable and familiar and I get to associate with the people I want to.

Perhaps what I have seen even more often is churches that want to siphon enough life to persist but not enough to be alive, because going from death to life is quite an uncomfortable disruption. So I am more acquainted with people wringing their hands about dwindling attendance and money and rising median age, and what they want is "new people" not so those new people can find salvation in Jesus Christ and grow up in him but so that they can provide enough of a boost to allow what is familiar to persist until after the veterans are dead. And I am acquainted with a few of the hand-wringers summoning the pluck to go to the churches that appear alive (genuinely or Sardisianly) in hopes of getting enough life to lurch along for the sake of themselves but not to learn how to live, really live, for Jesus and the world. Of course, these folks can't tell the difference between kind-of-living and really living, and ironically I suppose that makes them—the churches with no reputation for being alive—rather Sardisian!

So then, to the extent that I see the problem of Sardis in my neck of the woods, it's with dead churches who want to be Sardis not because they're copying Sardisian churches but because they want to be just enough like truly living churches to have the appearance of life while remaining dead. In other words, I have seen less of a problem with "living dead" churches as with "dead dead" churches who want to be "living dead" and sometimes superficially and half-heartedly mimic the "living living" to that end.

Pastor Zach said...

Certainly, many churches that appear to be alive actually ARE. I will get to that in future posts (the first, maybe, twenty posts will be from my recent sermon on Rev 3:1-6). But we know that God is really at work in those churches because the Gospel is preached there, not because they have all the outward awesomeness of a "happening" church. The main impetus behind the new blog is that we don't cure what ails us by turning to the Gospel to preach it boldly and faithfully, whether of not that brings in the crowds...instead, we turn to the churches that have brought in the crowds and try whatever they say works. And it's almost never simply "Preach the Gospel boldly and faithfully."