When Jesus Observes Our RealityErwin W. Lutzer | November 4, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
Some people are incredible. They are active in ministry, they say all the right things, their reputations are unblemished…but their hearts are rotten.
The church at Sardis was confronted by Jesus because of this very issue. They needed repent and get their hearts right with God. Jesus calls us to do the same; right action is not enough.
I am sure that all of us have met someone and afterwards we’ve said to a friend, “He’s the real deal.” What do we mean by that? We mean that what you see is what you get. He’s a person of integrity, he can be trusted, and he’s real. There’s no pretense. He is who he says he is. He’s the real deal. What we mean, I think, is that the inside of this person is essentially the same as the outside. The heart matches the head and the performance.
Jesus, when he looks at the church in the book of Revelation chapter three - and you can turn to that – he is speaking to a church here that is not the real deal, and what a message he gives to this church. In chapter three verse one, this is the church at Sardis. Remember that the letters to the churches of Revelation begin with Ephesus and then they go counterclockwise, and eventually, if you were to do that in modern Turkey, you could come to these places. It is the church that is in Sardis.
Now can you imagine being a member of a church and you get a letter from Jesus, and could there be any person in all the universe whose opinion would be more important than his? You get this letter from Jesus and it is a letter of strong, strong rebuke. What would it sound like?
Now I decided to do this. What if I were to read this letter and then put Moody Church where Sardis occurs? This is going to be very strong. I asked you to look at what church you think best represents Moody and I have not chosen this church as best representing us. I would like to think that this isn’t true of us but let’s just hear what this must have sounded like to the congregation at Sardis.
“And to the angel of the church at Moody write the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember then what you have received and heard. Keep it and repent. If you do not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I have come against you, but I still have a few names at Moody, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my father and before his angels. He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the spirit says to he churches.” Oh, wow, what a strong letter.
The letter begins by saying, “I’m the one who has the seven stars and the seven spirits.” The seven stars, of course, are the angels or the leaders of the seven churches, and then you also have the seven spirits of God. What could that possibly be a reference to? There aren’t seven independent spirits of God. It refers to the fullness of the spirit.
Jesus is saying that there are seven churches and each one can have the fullness of the Holy Spirit. “I have the seven spirits in my other hand.”
Now what we’d like to do for the next few moments is to walk through this passage with all of the sting that Jesus gave to this church, and to do so, and to walk through it by pointing out, first of all, obviously the strong rebuke. Then we’ll get to the remedy, and then we’ll get to the reward.
That’s the agenda. This outline, by the way, is not mine. It comes from John Stott, who wrote a book on the seven churches, and I have benefited much from reading it, and today my outline is essentially from his book. So let’s walk through this passage of scripture, and let’s see what Jesus has to say to Sardis.
First of all he says (there’s this sharp rebuke), “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Wow. If you wanted to join a church, Sardis was the place to join. Sardis would have had ministries to the poor, ministries to widows, ministries in the community. It was an active beehive of activity. It had a reputation that spread beyond its borders as a church that was constantly being involved and sacrificial. That’s what everybody thought of Sardis. You have a name, you have a reputation that you are alive, but God comes along and says, and “My opinion is very different. You are dead – spiritually dead. The difference is between physical health and spiritual health. There’s physical activity but where is the Holy Spirit? Where are those ministries that are transforming because the gospel is a part of those ministries and therefore, you are doing something that bears much spiritual fruit that will last forever - where is that kind of activity? I don’t find it,” God says “in Sardis.” Wow!
You know I am reminded of Jesus when he was here on earth and spending time with the Pharisees. That’s the way in which he looked at them - as individuals. He said, “You sing the right songs, you hear the right words, you honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me. God says, “I’m looking at your heart and my opinion is different from yours. You think you are doing well and I say that you are a lie; you are a hypocrite.” In fact he made this astounding statement. He said, “Outwardly you are like a tomb that has been adorned. It’s whitewashed.” You know, an ossuary is basically a bone box. The ossuaries that were found in that famous tomb in Jerusalem supposedly contained the bones of Jesus, but now everybody, of course, denies that those are the bones of Jesus. But, an ossuary was this bone box, and sometimes they had all kinds of paint and ornamentation, and Jesus said, “You are like that. Outwardly you appear to be righteous. You say the right prayers. You give the right gifts, and you sing the right hymns, and you go to the right church, but inwardly you are like dead men’s bones, filled with rot.” We’ve all met people like that, have we not? Jesus strongly rebukes this church.
Well, what is the remedy? He gives five imperatives and we’ll look at them very quickly.
First of all, he says, “Wake up.” Now you can’t tell dead people to wake up. I mean you can tell them to wake up but they probably won’t. You can go into a funeral home and say, “Wake up,” and do you no what? They just are going to awake. There must have been some people at Sardis who were not dead but simply asleep, and so this may be an appeal to the Christians to say, “Wake up. Don’t you see what’s happening around you? Don’t you see that your church has lost the gospel? Don’t you see that your ministry is not permanently transforming, and that people are not coming to Christ as savior? Wake up.” And that’s maybe what God is saying to us as a church and as a nation. He’s saying, “Don’t you see where you are headed? Don’t you see that your lives are full of pleasure, and all kinds of recreation, and you basically have squeezed me out? Wake up.”
When I was in Germany recently I woke up at about 6:00 o’clock in the morning. It was a Sunday morning, and I heard some bells chiming at a church, and I knew I had missed the first few, and I wasn’t going to count the number of bells that were ringing, but I thought, “Well, all right, I’ll begin counting the chimes.” Well I counted fourteen. It was six o’clock in the morning and I heard fourteen chimes. I told somebody in Germany, “You know, it’s later than it’s ever been,” and maybe that’s what God is saying to us. Folks, it is later in America than it has ever been. Wake up.
And then the Lord says, “Strengthen what remains. You know there are new believers who are wobbly. There are ministries that are transforming and you strengthen them.” You pray and you seek God and you work with others and you do all that you possibly can to rescue what you’ve got and to make it better. So the scripture says, “Wake up. Strengthen what remains,” and then notice Jesus throws this in. “If you will not wake up…” – I’m still in verse three – “…I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Would you like to be the member of a church where Jesus, when he comes, is against that church? I would not want to be a part of a fellowship like that. Could you imagine it? This is the meek and the mild Jesus that most people know and think that that’s all there is to him.
So what he says is, “Strengthen what remains,” and then we’ll take imperative three and four together. “Remember what you have received and…” and number four is “…keep it.”
“Remember what you have received,” he says. What is it that they received? Well certainly the gospel which apparently had been lost in the church, but they had also received the Holy Spirit, and the power of the Spirit, but they were quenching the Spirit. They were grieving the Spirit.
Maybe that’s why this letter begins with the words of Jesus, “I am he who has the seven stars in my right hand,” and I suppose that the seven spirits are in his left hand. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the stars on this hand and the Spirit in this hand were brought together and the church experienced again the transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit of God? You see Christianity is a supernatural religion, and if we can explain everything we do by some human explanation, we’ve not yet understood the fullness of the Spirit and the remarkable work that the Spirit can do among us.
I’ve been a part of revival meetings, particularly in Western Canada, in the early seventies where the Holy Spirit did in an hour what sermons and programs could not do in ten years. God began to break hearts. There was repentance; there was restoration between teen-agers and their parents, and people were making things right. Builders who had cheated people in their building were going and spending a great deal of money, actually even mortgaging their houses to make things right and to pay people off. The conviction of sin was so overwhelming.
And so the text says, “Remember those days when sin troubled you? Remember those days when you struggled against it? Remember that and get back to what made your life transforming and great for the cause of the kingdom,” and then he says, “Repent,” and that can be applied to both the dead and the sleeping. Repent mean that we change our mind. We’re going in this direction, and then we choose and we go in the other direction because we sincerely turn from our sins to God. Repentance – that’s what it is, and Luther was right when he said, “It’s the responsibility of the Christian to live a life of daily repentance.”
You repent today. I repented this morning. I repented yesterday morning, and I will repent also tomorrow morning, God willing, when I again come before God and deal with the sin issues, turning from that sin to Jesus Christ. And so he says, “Repent.” And you know you’ve often heard me say that when you’re going to jump across a chasm it is much better to do it in one long jump than in two short ones. It really is, and when you repent you might as well do it up right. Get to the root – get to the thing that keeps causing you to stumble, and Jesus said, “If necessary, pluck out your eye or take off your hand.” He’s speaking symbolically, but he’s saying, “Whatever you need to do to leave your sin behind and serve Jesus, do it. Do it,” and that’s the message that Jesus brings to this church.
Well, we have looked very briefly at the strong rebuke. We’ve looked at the remedy – the very clear remedy that Jesus gives. What is now the reward? The reward is literally out of this world.
You know, if you did nothing else but read, and I hope that you are reading and re-reading the message to the seven churches, but if you did nothing else but simply read all of the promises that are made to the overcomers, and if the Holy Spirit showed you actually what you are reading, your mind would absolutely be boggled because I can’t get my mind around this.
This series of messages, by the way, has done a whole lot more for me than I ever guessed it would because I want to be an overcomer. I want to be among those who receive these rewards, but look what it says. It says, “But I still have some people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments. There are those aren’t into immorality and moral impurity, and dishonesty and deceit, and you can still take their word to the bank, so to speak, and trust them. There are still some people who have not succumbed to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. There are some names…” By the way, you should underline the use of the word “name.” “Yet you have a new names.” God is interested in people; he’s interested in names. You’ll notice that he does this and Pastor Hertzberg would want me to tell you that it’s very important for us to wear our nametags. By the way, they are a great blessing here at the church. I know more people’s names now at Moody Church than I’ve ever known because I can read. [laughter]
You’ll notice that he says, “I have a few names in Sardis of people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white.” Ah, that’s a sermon by itself. “They will walk with me in white.” I mean imagine walking with Jesus.
Right now as I am here I am remembering a Cubs game that I attended twenty-five or thirty years ago and afterwards we were where the players were. I don’t remember whether they won or lost, although we could all guess possibly [laughter], but I mean this is twenty or thirty years ago, but I remember all these kids trying to get autographs and they all wanted to take at least a few steps with their favorite hero – their favorite sports personality. Man, imagine walking with Jesus.
Where did you walk today? You know, Jesus and I took a walk. I walked with him in white. Imagine that. Now listen. He says, “They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy,” and where does their worthiness come from? “They are worthy because they have the right garment.” There is not worthiness in the Bible of human beings that is a worthiness that separates us from the grace of God. It is always grace that makes us worthy.
But now look – three promises.
First of all, the one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments and that garment is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, credited to us because Jesus died for sinners, and you see, when we go there that’s why we sing, “clothed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne,” because we stand in his righteousness and we’ve got the right robes, but also we don’t soil those robes. We don’t take them for granted. We don’t say, “Well, now that I’m a Christian I can live however I want to live,” because we don’t want to be soiled as the other figure of speech would implicate, so we are given white robes, and that’s what makes us worthy to be in God’s presence.
I’ve said it a hundred times. I hope to say it at least three hundred times before I die. That’s why Jesus is the only possible way to heaven. Nobody else out there has righteousness to credit to us that God will accept. That takes care of all those arguments that take place in universities. Well, what’s wrong with this person or this religion? Well, I’ll tell you what’s wrong. They don’t have the righteousness to give you so that you can get to heaven. That’s one thing that’s wrong, and it’s the major thing that’s wrong. And now we can move on.
Am I alone up here today or is anybody else out there? [applause]
And then he says, “I will never blot out his name out of the book of life.” Oh, that stops many people. Is there a possibility of having our names blotted out of the book of life? Very quickly, in the Old Testament particularly there’s reference to the book of life that is really the book of the living. When Moses said, “Either forgive these people or blot out my name from the book of life,” he means the book of the living. He means, “Kill me but forgive these people.” By the way, think of the devotion that Moses had. He was willing to say, “Kill me. Blot my name out of the book.” It had to do with the town register. When somebody died you erased their name.
That’s what David had in mind, I think, in Psalm 68 when he said, “Blot out the wicked from the book of life.” He’s talking about the fact that these wicked people ought to die. God ought to take care of them, but when you get to the book of Revelation what you find is now we are talking about a different book. We’re talking about a book that is really the book of life elsewhere called the Lamb’s Book of Life. This is a book of not just those who are physically alive, but spiritually alive who have actually been born again.
So the question is, “Can a name be blotted out from that book?” That’s the question, and some people on this basis have said that that means that a genuinely saved person can eventually be lost, and I suppose if you held to that this is one text that you’d like to use. Let’s think about that a little bit. A lot of ink has been spilled discussing this phrase so I shall summarize very briefly.
It is interesting that in chapter thirteen of Revelation verse nine it says this. “All who dwell upon the face of the earth shall worship the beast except those whose names have been written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world.” It’s the book of the elect. If you believe in Jesus, your name was written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world, and some people think the world’s been around a long time. Wow.
Oh, you say, “That’s not fair, but, but, but (you know the motor boaters – but, but, but, but).” At the end of this message I’ll tell you how you can find out whether your name is there, so don’t complain too much, okay? You can know whether your name is there, but I’m ahead of the story.
Are you telling me that someone whose name has been in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world is going to be erased within God’s purposes? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. You’ll notice that this promise does not say, “I will erase his name from the book of life.” This is a promise that he will not do it. Nowhere do you ever read, “I will blot out his name.” It’s a promise to the faithful. “Hey, look, you’re faithful; you’re going through a hard time. My promise to you is I won’t blot your name out of the book of life. When you stand before me all is going to be very well, thank you.”
And so what we have is three promises: the white garments, the book of life, and then he says, “I will confess his name…” Do you notice there – name, name, name, name. “I will confess his name before my father and before his angels.” I mean I don’t know what this is going to be like but imagine now, and I’ll use myself as an example. I could choose anyone else whose name I know here but I might as well pick on myself. Imagine being in the presence of the father and you have all of the holy angels, and then Jesus says to the father, “This is Erwin Lutzer.” Can you even take that into your spirit? “…but I will confess his name to the father.”
Elsewhere Jesus says, “If you are ashamed of me and my words in this sinful and adulteress generation…” He’s saying to those businessmen whom nobody knows are Christians because you are ashamed, he says, “I will be ashamed of him when I come with the holy angels.” Wow, but he says “I will confess his name before my father and before the holy angels.” Nothing is private in heaven. This is not some little thing done off in a corner. The hosts of heaven are there, and they are watching and they are amazed at God’s infinite grace.
What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is this that when God sees you he doesn’t see all the good things that you do. He sees your heart. That’s what he’s after, and you know, those of you who have never received Christ as savior, but people think you have because you’re such a nice person but you’ve never really been born again, that day will declare it - I’ll tell you. In fact, Jesus said “Some people who did many miracles in my name, and in my name cast out demons and did the miracles, I’m going to slam the door of heaven in their faces and say, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of iniquity.’” And they’re going to say, “Iniquity? We served you. We preached in your name. We went to church in your name. We sang hymns in your name. We affirmed things in your name,” and he’ll say, “I never knew you. I’m sorry, but you know what? You have a reputation that you are alive, but you are dead. You were never regenerated by the Holy Spirit.”
So I have to ask you a question today. Let’s suppose that this isn’t a large congregation as it is, but let us suppose that you and I were having tea together, and I looked you in the eye – you were two feet from me – and asked you, “Have you been born of the Spirit? Are you saved? Don’t tell me the things that you have done. Are you saved?” That’s a good question because that’s a biblical question.
There was a twenty-dollar bill. It bought some groceries. Eventually it cycled around and turned up in the life of a woman who used it to buy medicine for her sick child, but in the end it was disqualified because it was counterfeit. The fact is that you and I can do work and we can have the reputation that is sterling and inside be dead. I’ve known people who have assumed that they are Christians because they were brought up in a Christian home, they go to a Christian church, and they sing Christian songs, but the reality is not there.
And who are we looking at? We’re looking at the Jesus about whom it says, “I am the one that searches the hearts.” That’s what the text says – the one who sees the hearts. That’s who we are dealing with. This is a Jesus thing - Jesus’ word to me and Jesus’ word to you.
Let us pray.
Father, where do we go with this? What do we do in light of the fact that you have spoken? I think of the many people who are here today. We have a wonderful large congregation and I think of you going up and down the aisles and across the various places. I think of the many hundreds who are listening to this and seeing it on the Internet around the world, and you’re checking hearts and you know who we really are – who we really are. I pray that those who have never trusted Christ as savior may do so right now. May they say, “Lord Jesus, I have sinned; I am a sinner; I’m spiritually dead but at this moment I trust Jesus to give me life, to forgive me, to make me a new person.”
Would you pray that prayer right where you are right now?
And then, Father, we pray for those of us who do know you as savior. We discover that our names are written in the book of life when we come to Christ by faith and receive him, and know that we have been received, and we know that our names are in your book. We pray that all, Father, to whom you have spoken may know that, and for those of us who do know you already, may we wake up. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.