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Letters from Revelation 2 & 3

Overcoming Spiritual Sloth

Revelation 3:1-6

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Reiterate the setting of these seven letters (MAP).  These letters are relevant because they reveal Jesus’ priorities for Christians and churches (praise & rebuke), and because he explains how to address weaknesses and promises his presence and power to restore health.  (This is why I am focusing primarily on his analysis and treatment plan rather than the highly symbolic “overcomer” verses.) 

Let’s take a look at the fifth letter, to the Christian community in Sardis—read 3:1-6 (NIV).

Jesus’ diagnosis

Jesus’ analysis contains no praise for this church.  Jesus acknowledges that a few members are spiritually healthy (3:4), but whereas the phrase “I know your deeds” normally introduces the church’s strengths, in this case it exposes and rebukes their weakness!

They are in an advanced state of spiritual sloth.  Their problem is chronic spiritual omission.  It’s not that they are doing things they should not be doing (no evidence of serious overt moral compromise like Pergamum, or acceptance of false teaching like Thyatira).  It’s that they are not doing the things they should be doing.  Jesus describes this in 3 ways:

They have a reputation for being spiritually alive, but they are actually near death (3:1b,2).  They evidently used to be a spiritually productive church—and they still have that reputation with other churches.  But they are resting on their laurels rather than forging ahead.  In fact, their good reputation may be helping them rationalize/deny their spiritually critical condition.)

They’re not just resting.  Jesus’ command to “wake up” (3:2a) means that they are spiritually asleep.  They are no longer vigilant against attack and for opportunities to advance Jesus’ kingdom.  They are like the sluggard in Prov. 6:9-11 (read)—and in the same danger.

They are letting their assignment go uncompleted (3:2b).  Jesus has entrusted them with a task of supreme importance—to reach out to lost people in Sardis and help them become mature followers of Jesus—but they have taken their foot off the pedal on this mission.  There are people in Sardis that are hungry to find God and follow him, but these people aren’t helping them to do this.

“Instead of transmuting the vanishing enthusiasms of youth into a worthy life of purpose, we soften things and become anemic and insipid.  There comes a loss of spiritual fervor, a waning of personal devotion, the feeling that we have earned the right to ease up on self-denial and indulge ourselves a little, to yield to softening ease and settle down.  With the fixing of life tendencies and habits, disillusionment, criticism and sometimes cynicism become the pattern of life...  There comes an unconscious deterioration of moral and spiritual power.”1  Can you relate to this?

We may not view spiritual sloth as a serious problem, but Jesus does!  In fact, he warns them that unless they turn this around, he will discipline them severely (3:3b)—probably meaning that they will cease to exist as a church.  Why is spiritual sloth so serious and dangerous?

It is serious because it is disobedience to Jesus.  Following Jesus is not ultimately about what you don’t do (EXAMPLES), but about what you do do (Matt.22:36-40; Rom.13:8-10).  Yes, Jesus leads us away from a lifestyle of destructive behaviors—but he also leads us into a lifestyle of active sacrificial love of God, Christian friends, neighbor (near and far), and enemies.  If you leave the lifestyle of bad deeds but don’t embrace this lifestyle of good deeds, you are aborting his purpose for your life and rejecting his leadership.  This is why the Bible (unlike most religions) is so hard on omission (Jas.4:17; Matt.25:22-30; 21:27-30; Jas.1:22-25).

It is dangerous because it is so easy to rationalize.  It’s more difficult to deny that you are in trouble when you’re addicted to drugs, or when you have been busted being unfaithful to your spouse, or when you have been verbally abusive to your family or work associates.  Your conscience and other people’s reactions both blare “Warning!”  But omission is much more subtle—it’s like spiritual hypertension (the “silent killer”).  You don’t have an acutely painful conscience, you can point to alleged signs of health (“I go to home group;” “I know many Bible verses”), and others are not as likely to challenge you because you’re not hurting them.  Yet spiritual sloth is gradually overtaking your life.

Do you know why I know so much about chronic spiritual omission?  Because it is the biggest ongoing temptation in my spiritual life.  By temperament, I tend to be passive, lazy and self-righteous—comparing my strengths to others instead of fulfilling my potential before God.  My position and role in this church make it easy for me to rationalize being spiritually complacent rather than continuing to grow and develop.  And my age and gradually waning physical vigor sometimes make “doing less” more attractive.  I fear this more than any other spiritual problem!

Having admitted my own vulnerability to chronic omission, I must also say that I believe that we may be becoming a Sardian church.  I say “may,” because there are still many who are healthy and productive (extol older home group leaders and workers; acknowledge hungry new Christians), and because the picture is not clear.  But I see some worrisome signs.  We have a reputation of spiritual vitality based on past accomplishments—but I’m not confident that we are living up to our reputation.  I interact with an increasing number of long-time Xenoids seem to be sleepy and unmotivated in their service for Jesus—and unconcerned about it.  And certain vital signs (outreach and discipleship) have waned recently even though there are thousands in greater Columbus who are looking for God.  I guess I don’t want to wait until we get a definitive diagnosis—I want to sound the alarm so we nip this in the bud.  And we can do this, because Jesus is ready and willing and able to cure this disease—if we cooperate with his treatment plan...

Jesus’ treatment plan

Jesus will unleash his Spirit’s power (3:1) to revive us individually and as a church—but we must cooperate by “waking up” or “rousing ourselves.”  This is the main command in 3:3,4—the other commands explain how to wake up.  (It also works as a prevention plan.)

“Repent” means change your attitude about chronic omission.  Judge it for the disobedience it is instead of rationalizing it.  Agree with God that you need to be fully and productively awake, and that you’re ready to do whatever you need to get this.  It’s also very helpful to verbalize this realization and decision to some brothers and sisters so they can affirm your repentance and support you in it (see below).

“Strengthen the things that remain” means improve and build on whatever spiritual activities you still do.  Do you still read God’s Word?  Read it with renewed frequency and alertness.  Do you still meet regularly with a Christian friend?  Meet with increased honesty and spiritual focus.  Do you still pray?  Pray less for your own comfort and deliverance from difficult situations, and pray more for how God wants you to represent him accurately, what he wants to teach you through difficulties, etc.   As you engage God more intentionally and intensively in these areas, he will give you greater motivation to engage and serve him in additional areas.

“Remember what you have heard and obey it” means embrace a lifestyle of “faith expressing itself in love” (Gal.5:6).  Faith is like muscle—if you don’t regularly exercise it, it atrophies.  To become fully awake, to regain healthy faith, you have to put your faith to work!  “This (problem) is not in need of comfort but challenge . . . As George Whitefield .. . wrote in his diary, ‘I am never better than when I am on the full stretch for God’...Faith must go on being exercised.  Faith must mean everything today or in some tomorrow it may mean nothing.  Yesterday’s experiences, insights, answers to prayer . . . were completely legitimate and satisfying yesterday, but today is another day.  God’s truth and God’s love will always be fresh, but will the same be said of our response?”2

Start asking yourself: “How did I serve others today beyond my normal responsibilities?  What scary steps of faith did I take this past week?”  It may be sharing your faith, being vulnerable about your sins and problems, going out of your way to thank or encourage someone, choosing to enter into rather than avoid conflict, etc.  As you stretch your faith in this way, it will regain health and you will become more spiritually alert and motivated.  “What spiritual goals did I set and achieve this past year?” 

3:4 provides us with another subtle but powerful way to wake up and stay awake—take advantage of people who are “going the distance with God.”  God has provided you with a host of human examples who can inspire you and help you to wake up and stay awake.  Use them!

BIBLICAL EXAMPLES: I love Caleb (Josh.14:6-12).  He remained zealous and productive for God through 45 years.  At 85, he had sustained vigor for God, and increased confidence in God, saying, “Give me the toughest hill!”  Oswald Sanders’ comments: “‘Give me this mountain’ is a good watchword for (older) Christians.  Are we losing our spirit of aggression, becoming hesitant to risk a step of faith for God?  Do we inwardly shrink from the rigors of the battle?  ...Perhaps what we need is to remove our slippers, don the shoes of iron and ask the Lord for some forbidding mountain to conquer in his name...Die climbing!”3

PAST EXAMPLES IN YOUR LIFE: When I was 19, I met Evan Welch.  At 80, he was fully engaged in a campus ministry with students—and traveling around to speak to other students like us.  Around a dinner table, one of us asked him kidding: “When are you going to retire?”  I was looking out the window when I heard his fork drop.  I looked over to hear him say: “Young man, I don’t find that word in my Bible!  How can you retire when there are so many people who don’t know Christ, and you still have energy to serve him?”  That made an indelible impression on me—I prayed “God, I want to be like this man!” 

CURRENT EXAMPLES: This is one of the great benefits of being in a healthy home group—you have proximity to people like this.  Watch their way of life—and let it inspire you.  Ask how they stay awake and motivated—and imitate their answer.  Give them the “green light” to challenge you about omission as well as commission.  And determine to be this for them and others!

1 J. Oswald Sanders, A Spiritual Clinic (Chicago: Moody Press, 1958), pp.187,188.

2 Os Guinness, Doubt (Sydney: Lion Paperback, 1987), p. 114.

3 J. Oswald Sanders, A Spiritual Clinic, pp. 189,190,192.