AUTOPSY OF A DEAD CHURCH
By David J. Stewart | Click for background music in new window
“And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.”
Imagine you are crawling, scorched, near-death, across a hot burning desert. You are dying of thirst and close to perishing. But, ahead, you see a sign that reads, “Cool, clear, life-giving water - only five miles ahead”. This sign gives you renewed energy, new hope and you continue your tormenting crawl across the parched sand. As you arrive at the promised place, you see a magnificent building, radiant in its beauty, the sign outside invites you in, even beckoning you with the promise of life-giving water.
So you crawl through the entrance into a glorious building and there before you is the promised well, with the bucket ready to be let down and filled with water to quench your thirst and to pour life back into your body. With the last bit of your strength, you lower the bucket into the well, expecting a splash as the bucket hits the water, but it never comes. The only sound is the dull thud of the bucket hitting the bottom.
You think that perhaps you are just delirious, so you reel in the bucket only to find it full of dust. Dust that cannot quench your thirst, but dust that only deepens the thirst and destroys all hope. Sound far-fetched? This is the experience of many people who go to God's house expecting to filled and fed with the water and bread of life, only to find all the trappings and the rituals, but no help or hope for all those who've made their way there.
Such was the condition of the church we are considering today. The church in
had taken on the character of the city in which she resided. A little background on the city will help us understand the condition of this church. Sardis
Sardiswas the capital city of . Lydia
· It was founded about 1,200 BC.
· The original city sat on the top of a 1,500 foot high plateau. There was one narrow road leading into the city. The other sides of the plateau were just steep cliffs. This made the city very safe and nearly impenetrable by invading armies.
was the home of Aesop, who’s fables we all heard as children. Sardis
· Gold and silver coins were first minted here.
· The city of
was famous for the industries that operated there. Carpet, wool and dyed cloth were their primary products. It is said that the art of dyeing was invented at Sardis . Sardis
· At one time,
had been one of the greatest cities in the world. It reached its zenith under King Croesus. King Croesus and Sardis were famed around the world for their wealth. In that part of the world, it is still common to hear the phrase, “As wealthy as Croesus”. Sardis
reached its zenith under Croesus, it also fell under his reign. He and the people of the city became complacent in their wealth, their power and their city’s apparent invincibility. When that region where Sardis was located came under attack by Cyrus the Persian, King Croesus and his people retreated to their city, believing they were safe. One night, one of the Persian soldiers saw a Sardinian soldier drop his helmet over the wall of the city. He watched as that soldier followed a hidden path down the side of the mountain to retrieve his helmet. When nightfall came, Cyrus and his troops followed the hidden path up the side of the mountain, entered the city while the guards slept and conquered Sardis . Sardis
regained some of its former wealth under the reign of Alexander the Great, but was invaded and defeated by Antiochus the Great, who also entered the city at night while the guards slept. Sardis
· When the Romans came,
was still a wealthy, powerful city, but it was just a shell of its former self. By John’s day, Sardis was just a shell of what it had been. The people had grown lazy, degenerate, immoral and complacent. Sardis was dying through apathy and indifference. Sardis
· The city was proud of its past; it was proud of its reputation. But, its reputation was all it had left. For all intents and purposes, the city of
was dead, even while it lived. Sardis
Apparently, the church in
had adopted the atmosphere of the city. The church had become a thermometer that registered the temperature of the city instead of a thermostat that changed the temperature of the city. It is to this church that had become lazy, apathetic and complacent that the Lord Jesus comes. Just as surely as the city of Sardis was dying, so was the church if Christ in that city. Jesus has no words of commendation for them, but He does have some words of counsel. I would like for us to look at our Lord’s words to this dying church. There is a word of warning for us in these verses as well. Sardis
Let me just remind you that these letters can be viewed three ways. 1.) Practically – These letters were written to real churches with real issues. 2.) Prophetically – These letters picture the church at various stages of church history. This particular church pictures the period between 1,500 and the Rapture. It pictures the Protestant Reformation. It pictures dead orthodoxy. It pictures the state of many churches in our world. 3.) Personally – These letters have something to say to every church and every believer who comes under the sound of their message.
I want to consider the words of Jesus to this church today. He has something to say to them and He has something to say to us as well. Let’s listen in as Jesus, the Great Physician, performs An Autopsy Of A Dead Church.
I.v. 1 THE GREAT PHYSICIAN’S PRONOUNCEMENT
A. He Comes Proclaiming His Deity – Jesus comes to this church as One Who has the “seven Spirits of God” and as One Who is holding the “seven stars”.
The “seven Spirits of God” refer to the Holy Spirit in His complete ministry. The seven-fold ministry of the Spirit is defined in
Isaiah 11:2. In His hand is the plentitude of the Holy Spirit. This is a reminder to the churches that we are to operate, not under the power of human skill, leadership and organization, but under the awesome power of the Holy Spirit. When the church walks in the power of the flesh, we will surely fail, but when we walk in the power of the Spirit, there will be success. There will be glory and there will be power and life instead of deadness and ineffectiveness!
When the human spirit is in control of the human body, amazing things can be accomplished. For instance, a pianist can sit down at a keyboard; perform thousands of delicate, precise movements that will produce beautiful music. However, let that same pianist suffer some injury that leaves the arms paralyzed, and the mind is no longer in control of those arms, hands and fingers. Then, try as it might, the human spirit cannot will the hands to make music. So too, when the Spirit of God is in control of the members of the church, great things can be accomplished. However, when He is not, paralysis is the result and nothing can be accomplished for God.) Ill.
The “seven stars” are the Pastors of the churches, Rev. 1:20. They are the messengers who bring the people the Word of God.
Jesus appears as One Who has everything the church needs to succeed. His Spirit has all the power the churches need. His Word has all the direction His churches need.
Jesus seems to be saying, “If you will submit to me, you will find in me all you need to accomplish my mission in this world.”
(Note: That is a message the modern church needs today. Men are trying every method under the sun to reach sinners, and to do the work of the church. But, all the power we need is found in the fullness of the Holy Ghost and in the Word of God. What we need is not a new method; but a new desire to seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit and do everything according to the teachings of the Word of God.)
B. He Comes Proclaiming His Discernment – Jesus tells them, “I know thy works”. He comes as One Who sees all and knows all. He does not commend their works and He does not condemn their works. He merely tells them that He knows everything they are doing.
(Note: He knows everything we are doing too! He sees it all, along with the motives that drive us to do what we do, Heb. 4:12-13; Psa. 139:2. He sees us as a whole, and He sees the individual as well. He knows your heart. He knows everything you do and He knows why you do it. That is a sobering thought.)
C. He Comes Proclaiming His Diagnosis – Apparently, their works gave them the appearance of life. Jesus tells them that they have that reputation. They were a busy, working church with a great reputation among men. From all outward appearances, this church was everything a church ought to be. They believed the right things and they were busy to good all over the community. Everyone who saw them looked at them and said, “That church is on fire!” I am sure that when people moved to
from other towns, their Pastors suggested that they visit this church. It had all the appearances of life. Sardis
But, things were not as they seemed! The Great Physician placed His finger on the pulse of this church and pronounced them dead! No matter what others thought, Jesus knew the truth. Regardless of what others may have thought about this church, Jesus knew the truth.
He tells them that even though everyone thinks they are alive, they are, in fact, dead! This word means just what it says! Like a dead man, the church at
was "destitute of force or power. They were ineffective and inoperative." They were dead! There was activity, but it was not spiritual in nature. There was busyness, but they were bringing nothing eternal to pass. They were preaching, but lives were not being changed and sinners were not being saved. They were busy, but they were operating in the energy of the flesh and not the energy of the Spirit of God. Everyone looked at them and spoke of their life. Jesus, the One Who knew then better than anyone, looked at them and pronounced them dead! Sardis
(Note: Looks are deceiving! These flowers on this table have all the appearance of life. They are beautiful; they are filled with color and fragrance; but they are dead! They have been severed from the roots that gave them life. It won’t be many days until their colors fade; their blooms wilt; their leaves turn brown and they will be taken and thrown away. They look alive, but they are dead!
The same can be said about animals on display in a museum. They look very life-like. They are placed in natural habitats, but they are dead. Our world is filled with similar fakes. Things like silk flowers, wax fruit, etc, they all look alive, but they are dead!)
The Polar Star. Astronomers tell us that it takes 33 years for the light from that star to reach the earth. For all we know the Polar Star might have burned out 20 years ago and we would not know it for another 13 years. It looks like it still there, but it may not be. It could be a dead star. Ill.
Many, many churches are in that same shape today. They have all the appearance of life, but the Great Physician, Who has His finger on their pulse, knows they are dead. Folk, His finger is on the pulse of
today. Does He feel a pulse? Is it strong and steady? Or, is it weak and failing? What does He know about our church that we may not know?) Calvary Baptist Church
(Note: Here are some of the signs that a church is dying.
· A dying church rests on its past accomplishments and is satisfied with its presence state.
· A dying church is more concerned about their rituals and their formalities than they are about spirituality.
· A dying church is more concerned about social change than they are about seeing people changed by the power of God.
· A dying church is more concerned with material growth than it is with spiritual growth.
· A dying church is more concerned with pleasing men that it is with pleasing God.
· A dying church clings more tightly to its creeds and confessions that it does to the Word of God.
· A dying church is one that loses its conviction that the Bible is the Word of God.)
(Note: Those are some of the signs of a dying church, here are the signs of life in a church.
· Growth – All living things are characterized by growth. As long as you and I live in the bodies, we are maturing; we are changing; and we are growing. When the growth stops, it means we are dead!
The church is no exception. When people think of growth in the church, they immediately think of numerical growth. I think that is part of it. But, the primary way a church demonstrates life is through spiritual growth. A church that is alive will continue to develop spiritually. When a church ceases to grow spiritually, it is degenerating and dying.
· Harmony – When a physical body develops problems, it is because there is disharmony in the body. Cancer is a good example of this. Some of the cells become infected by the cancer and they attack other cells in the body. If this is left unchecked, the result will be disintegration and death for that body.
The same is true in the church. When a church is alive and well, there will be unity and harmony in the fellowship. When there isn’t, the body is diseased and is headed for trouble, unless the infected parts come back into harmony. When a church becomes fractured, it is headed for disaster and death.
· Emotion – Another mark of life in the physical realm is emotion. Because I am alive, I can laugh; I can cry; I feel pain; I feel joy; I have emotions and they demonstrate the fact that I am alive. When a physical body dies, one of the clearest indications is the total lack of emotion. The deceased person does not show one sign of emotion. They can’t because they are dead.
Again, the same is true in the church. A living church is an emotional church! There will be times when we will laugh together, weep together, shout together, sing together, hurt together, and pray together. In other words, when there is life, there is emotion.
· Motion – Another sign of life is motion. Physical bodies are bodies in motion. One sure sign of death is the absence of motion.
So it is within the church. When there is live in a church, there will be motion. The church will be active in the world doing the work of the Lord.)
(Note: So, how do we measure up? Do we exhibit the signs of life, or the signs of death? I do not think we are dead! But, I do think we could show more signs of life.)
I.The Great Physician’s Pronouncement
II. v. 2-3 THE GREAT PHYSICIAN’S PRESCRIPTION
The church in Ill. is in sad shape, but not all is lost! It appears that there is still hope for them to make some changes and get back where they need to be.) Sardis
A. They Are Commanded To Watch – They are told to “be watchful”. Literally, this means that they are to “chase sleep”. This church is a church with a glorious past. They have allowed their past success to lull them into a state of complacency and spiritual slumber. Jesus calls upon them to chase away sleep. His command is for them to wake up and realize that the victories of yesterday are not sufficient for this day!
The people in Ill. would have understood exactly what Jesus was talking about. As I mentioned earlier, Sardis was located on the top of a mountain. It had one entrance on the southern side which was the only way you could get into the city in the old days. Therefore, all that Sardis had to do was to put a detail at that one place to watch the city. But on two occasions in their history they had been invaded by their enemies because they had felt secure, believing that the hill was impregnable, and the guard went to sleep on the job. In 549 B.C. the soldiers of Cyrus scaled the parapet, and then again in 218 B.C. Antiochus the Great captured Sardis because a soldier slipped over the walls while the sentries were careless. When we allow ourselves to sleep because of what we have enjoyed in the past, we are going to find ourselves conquered by the enemy, Sardis 1 Pet. 5:8.)
This happens far too often in churches. A church will struggle in its beginning and the core group who founded that church will have to work, pray, witness, give and yield to God to see the church stay alive. Over time, more people come in. More money comes in. Buildings are built and good services are enjoyed. Yet, in the midst of all these good things, something terrible happens. The church begins to lose the vision that made them so strong in their early years. They become content to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labors. And, while we ought to be thankful for what the Lord has done for us, we will never reach a place where can let up! There is no time to look back to yesterday! Our vision ought to be for today and for tomorrow. Look around! We are aging! Who will take our place? Look around! We are full, but our vision is gone! Look around! We are satisfied with what we have and we have lost the fire that made us strong! Ill.
We must fight the tendency to become still, satisfied, complacent and apathetic.)
B. They Are Told To Work - The Lord gives this church four activities that they are to be busily engaged in. These things will help any church that has been caught napping on Jesus!
1. Revive – “strengthen the things which remain” - He tells them that not everything about them has died. There are still some things that have a spark of life in them. These things are to be revived before they die out. (
The phrase, “that are ready to die”, literally means, “that are knocking on death's door.”) This is a call for them to get stirred up again for the things of God! It is a call to revival! Ill.
“For I have not found thy works perfect before God.” This means that their “works are incomplete and do not reach Heaven.” They have some things in their midst that are good, but they are works that need reviving before they will make an eternal difference. They were singing, praying, preaching and giving, but their works were not reaching Heaven. They were accomplishing nothing of eternal value. They were a dead people doing dead works. Ill.
It is possible to be busy in the things of God and yet to be doing nothing for God. Unless our works are complete, they will never reach Heaven, and there will be no glory for God in the church. What churches like this need is to be stirred by the Spirit of God into new life and activity for the glory of God!)
2. Remember – “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard” - These people are counseled to remember where the Lord brought them from and what He has done for them. They are to remember the days when they served the Lord out of a glad heart and wanted more than anything to do His will! They are to remember what it was like to walk in the power of God while the fire of His glory burned in and He used them for His glory!
(Ill. Memory can be a bad thing, especially when our memories cause us to live in the past and rest on past glory. However, if memory wakes us up and causes us to be resurrected in the present, then memory serves a great purpose! If we are to remember anything, let us remember the God Who makes churches great for His glory and lets seek Him once again!)
3. Resolve – “Hold fast” - This church is told to hold on to the things that are still alive in their midst. They are to resolve before the Lord that they will not allow those things to die as well.
There is always a danger in focusing our attention in one area or another. We must not revive one thing while we allow another to die. Doing so leaves us in the same condition we are already in. What we are looking for is a total transformation that preserves the living things, and revives the dead things!) Ill.
4. Repent – “Repent” - In this verse, they are confronted concerning their sin. When the things of God are allowed to die, the only recourse the church has is repentance!
The idea of repentance is a foreign one to many in our day and time. People seem to have the opinion that whatever they want to do is just fine and should be accepted by everyone. My friends, God is not obliged to accept the things you do! Ill.
When there is sin in the life of an individual, there must be repentance before there can be restoration and revival. The same is true for a church. When a church has allowed itself to be lulled into a state of slumber, their only hope is to repent!
What does it mean to repent? It means that we come to a place where we experience a change of mind about our sins that results in a change of direction. We turn from our sins and we turn toward God. Repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action! How long has it been since we as individuals and we as a church have repented before the Lord for our laziness, our complacency, out apathy, our wickedness, our deadness, etc?)
C. They Are Told To Wait – “I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” - This church is told that if they will not do the serious work of changing themselves, the Lord Himself will come into their midst and take away the things that remain alive and that church will be totally and fully dead! Like a thief, He will come in and take the best, and they will not even know when He comes and when He goes. They will be in a state of total death.
Many churches are in that very condition today! When the call to repentance came from the Lord, they ignored it and He came to them in swift judgment. Now, they function the same way they always have! They have services. They have preaching. They have outreach ministries. They give to missions. But, they are dead! They are ineffective! They are merely going through the motions! There is no life in their midst. Jesus has pulled the plug and pronounced them dead! The Lord has written “Ichabod” over the door and no one is aware of it. Like Samson, the Lord has left them and “they wist not that the Lord had departed.” That is a situation we want to avoid at all costs!) Ill.
I.The Great Physician’s Pronouncement
II. The Great Physician’s Prescription
III. v. 4-6 THE GREAT PHYSICIAN’S PROMISES
A. v. 4 His Promise To The Remnant – As bad as things were in
, there were some there who were saved and seeking to serve the Lord. They are given the Lord’s promise that they will walk with the Lord in white. They have lived out the truth in this world, and they can be confident that they will share His glory in that world. Sardis
White clothing was worn in Roman times during festivals and times of celebration. It was a symbol of purity, victory and festivity. What a promise to the faithful members of that church. Jesus says, “You folks are standing faithful. You have not defiled your garments with the deadness that exists all around you. You are saved and you are serving. One day, you will walk with Me in My Heaven. It will be a time of victory, festivity and purity.” That is His promise to all those who are saved by His grace.
B. v. 5 His Promise To The Repentant – Jesus tells the rest that is they will repent, and turn to Him, they will receive some precious promises.
· “the same shall be clothed in white raiment” - They will be made pure and victorious.
· “I will not blot out his name out of the book of life” - They will be made secure in the relationship with Him. By the way, God is not saying that He blots out names. This verse is often used by people who try to say that Christians can “lose their salvation”. It is not a verse that serves as a threat of loss. It is a verse that offers a precious promise of absolute security to all those who believe in Jesus.
There is a lot that can be said about these books. It appears that there is a book of life that contains all the names of those living, Ex. 32:32. It also appears that there is a Lamb’s Book of Life that contains all the names of the redeemed, Rev. 21:27. When a person is saved, there names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Jesus said that this was the real reason for rejoicing,
Luke 10:20. It may be that when a person dies lost, their name is blotted out of the book of the living. So, when the end comes, the names written in both books will match.
· “I will confess his name before My Father, and before His angels” - Someday, Jesus will usher His redeemed ones into the presence of the hosts of Heaven and say, “This is one of Mine! He was not ashamed of me and I am not ashamed of him!” (
Illustrate this truth visually.) Ill.
(Note: You see, the majority of the people in the church in
were not just cold and out of God’s will. They were lost, dead sinners in need of salvation. Jesus comes to them to give them an opportunity to be saved. Sardis
It might sound prideful and arrogant, but I am convinced that most churches are filled with lost sinners. They go through the motions, but they are merely practicing dead works. Churches in that shape do not need revival, they need a resurrection!)
Conc: Vance Havner once commented that ministries often begin with a man who has a vision. That vision is captured by others and becomes a movement. As the movement gains followers and momentum, it becomes a machine. After a while, people forget all about the vision and what was once a movement becomes nothing more than a monument to a man and a glorious past.
There is always the danger that any church can die. As Denis Lyle has so eloquently written, “Tragically, many churches are dead. Like the rotting carcass of Lazarus, these church bodies have the foul stench of death upon them. They have the appearance of life, but they are in actuality, dead. Their sanctuary is A Morgue with a Steeple. They are congregations of corpses. They have undertakers for ushers; embalmers for elders; and morticians for ministers. Their pastor graduated from the Cemetery. The choir master is the local coroner. They sing, "Embalmed in
Gilead." At the Rapture, they will be the first churches taken for the Bible says, “the dead in Christ shall rise first.”
The Great Physician has His finger on the pulse of this church and on that of every member. What does His touch reveal about us? I want to challenge each of you to examine your heart and the life of this church. If He has spoken to you about any need. This altar is open!