Seven Job Performance Reviews
While preparing for the Conference last week (St. Louis, April, 2012), I came across something in the scriptures that has radically changed my thinking about the “Seven Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia.”
I was looking at the first note dictated by the Lord Jesus to “the angel of the church of Ephesus” when something caught my eye that caused me to investigate further. I found that after addressing the little passage to a particular individual, whom most agree was the pastor or chief elder of the church, the personal pronouns and verbs were in the second person singular. On checking further, I found that all of the notes shared this characteristic and that when the Lord chose to address others at the church, He made it very clear by shifting the pronouns to the second person plural.
If I understand what the grammar implies, then these are not seven letters to seven church but seven notes to seven preachers. And they are notes of a particular kind, reviews of the lives and ministries of the seven men with both commendations and criticisms.
As I have reviewed these two chapters with this as a perspective, I have found them to be very powerful, very provoking, and completely humbling.
It always frightens me a great deal to come to a conclusion that seemingly had not been widely accepted. I am not nearly as widely read as some, so I am sure that someone has arrived at this conclusion before and I am just not aware of it. I submit my thoughts to you for your consideration and welcome your examination of these ideas.
I will tell you that I long ago rejected the view of Schofield that these are seven ages of the Christians church. My greatest problem with that theory is that one must hold the Roman Church as “The Church” in order to make it work and I have rejected that theory as well.
I know that some may already be looking at or thinking of the passages where the statement is made, “he that hath and ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” You may be thinking that this obviously means that the “letters” are addressed to the churches. Consider this. John, the last apostle, is about to die. This is the last visit of the Lord Jesus to the planet before the Last Day and these are the last words of new revelation that are going to be given to the Christian church at large. No one, from this point forward, is going to be here to review and either approve or reject the men who pastor Christian churches. That role, by default, is going to fall to the churches themselves. What could be more useful to them, going forward, than understanding clearly what our Lord approves and what He condemns in the lives of those men who lead them? And what could make that more clear than a review of 2 badly flawed, 2 massively faithful, and 3 mediocre pastors? Please consider this issue as we move through these seven notes.
To each one of these men and to the churches, Jesus says, “I know thy works.” (That is if you have a Bible based on the Received Text. If you do not, this phrase is missing in a couple of the notes.)
Nothing should strike awe into the heart of any pastor than the certain knowledge that Jesus Christ Himself is observing every deed.
I like to have my work reviewed, especially when I am in a circumstance where I am not altogether certain of what I am dealing with…. I confess that far too infrequently have I sought review from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
We will learn as we move through these passages what we work for a tough Boss.
The Pastors of Asia, Worst to Best
Rev. 3:14-22 – Laodicea
The Laodicean church has been historically labeled as the “lukewarm” church. The “Laodicean spirit” has long been used to describe times, eras, within Christianity which seem to correspond with the description that we find here.
But, I wonder how many people have ever thought of the “Laodicean preacher?”
If we follow the grammar here, as in the other ‘letters,’ we will find that the note is addressed to “the angel of the church of the Laodiceans.” Then it progresses to the statement “I know your works, sir.” Then, those words are followed by “you, sir, are neither cold nor hot.” The indictment is levied against the person to whom the note is addressed. Jesus does not say “you, pastor, are leading a lukewarm church,” but “you, yourself, are lukewarm.” The note is personal and extremely critical of the man whose title adorns the beginning of the address.
I wonder if the church was “lukewarm.” This man, if our analysis is correct, was conceited, haughty, thinking himself “rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing.” He had all of the answers to all of the questions and knew exactly the proper way to do everything. He is the very opposite, in many ways, to the pastor of the pastor of Smyrna to whom Jesus had said, “I know your work and your poverty (but you are rich).”
In complete keeping with the counter-intuitive approach of scripture, the poor man was ‘rich’ and the rich man was poor.
“You are completely self-sufficient in our own mind, sir, arrogant and sure of yourself. You do not think that you need anything or anyone.” Yet the man’s analysis of himself was completely erroneous. “You don’t even know, you are not at all aware, that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. You are not only not self-sufficient, you are not even close. You not only do not have everything you need, you have nothing.”
The Laodicean preacher did not have the appearance nor the demeanor of a complete failure. In fact, he seemed to be the most successful preacher around. He even thought so himself. We will not be surprised in glory if we discover that his church was the largest of the seven, the most financially prosperous and the most well thought of by the city in which it lived.
We also know that, generally speaking, any church is severally degrees cooler spiritually than her preacher. The lukewarm preacher does not have a lukewarm church, he has a cold church. Now it may not seem cold to the average observer, the casual attender or even the first-time visitor. It may be friendly, open, and ‘warm’ to them. But it is not the eyes of the community that stand in godly scrutiny over the scene, but the eyes of Him Whose “eyes were as a flame of fire,” piercing, perceiving, judging and harshly declaring approaching chastisement.
The statement “I will spue thee out of my mouth,” is again phrased in the second person singular. “I will spit you out, sir,” says the Lord Jesus. It is the preacher in danger of being rejected, not the church, at least not if we read the text this way. It is as if the Boss is saying, “I will fire you.”
So, now the application becomes personal. What do you think? On a scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being as cold toward God as Peter was the night he betrayed Him and 10 being the most passionate Paul ever was toward Him, where would you put yourself? Would you arrogate to yourself a 9 or an 8? Would you dare claim a 7, or even a 6? Where would you put us as a group, 5? But if 0 is cold and 10 is white-hot, what is a 5? Lukewarm?
May the Lord deliver His churches from lukewarm, self-sufficient and arrogant preachers and may He give them wisdom not to choose such men as their pastors.
The next worst situation, in my opinion, was at Sardis, Rev. 3:1-6
Here, the preacher is not threatened with being fired but by being visited personally in judgment by the Lord Jesus. “I will come upon you as a thief.” This can be read as a threat to end the man’s life. One might ask, “why is He threatening to kill this man and only fire the man at Laodicea?” Consider it, would you rather be killed in discipline as a child of God or cast aside by Him to live out a useless life?
What was the problem? First of all the preacher is living a reputation, a ‘name,’ that is in contradiction to the reality of his soul. “But thou art dead,” suggests to us that this reputation has something to do with him having ‘life,’ spiritual life, in an abundant and extravagant way, something that supposedly went beyond what others, even other preachers had. In other words, he was a spiritual fraud.
The fact that his works were ‘not perfect’ is undoubtedly a formally polite way of saying that there were serious problems with how he was doing what he was doing there.
Sardis is an odd exception to the rule we mentioned concerning Laodicea. Here there are some people who are doing well spiritually in spite of their preacher. “Thou hast a few names….which have not defiled their garments.” Shall we read a little between the lines and think that they had not defiled themselves by following the preacher’s example?
Interestingly enough, the two worst situations mentioned in these seven notes are two preachers with ego problems. One was a “legend in his own mind,” and the other was keeping up a false reputation.
We are reminded that one of the most difficult things for any human being to do is to honestly examine himself and give himself brutally honest answers to difficult questions. “How am I doing, really, in my work before the Lord?” “Am I a fraud?” “Do I have an overblown sense of my own spirituality.” “Is my spiritual life really doing well, as examined by the Boss, Jesus Christ?”
The churches are called upon to take note that the ego-driven preacher with a huge reputation may not be all that he seems. The Boss doesn’t really seem to take well to that kind of preacher.
The next spot, #3 on the worst to best list, is a toss-up in my mind between the preacher at Pergamos and the one at Thyatira. Both of them had some things to commend them and some things to criticize. I am going to put Pergamos here, but I would not argue if someone wanted to flip these two.
There are some positive areas noted in this review.
13 I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. KJV
My first thought here was, “what difference does it make where he lived?” Did he live somewhere near the idol’s temple, or the Jewish synagogue? Or, is Jesus stating that He fully understood the circumstances there, which were, no doubt, very difficult.
One of the believers had been martyred there, which would be an event to strike fear into the hearts of many. But this pastor has stood firm, has not denied the faith, and has held fast to the name of Christ. This guy has some real courage and has manifested it in difficult circumstances.
But courage is a funny thing. It can be there one minute and gone the next. I recall how Elijah on one day faced down the prophets of Baal and of the grove and personally executed 850 of them. And then, the next day, he was running for his life from Jezebel. So it is with this man. He has faced the threat of loss of life and stood fast, but he seemingly had no courage to deal with error and false teachings in the church.
14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. KJV
More than one of the NT churches had issues of fornication inside them. We can blame the culture, the false teachers, or the wickedness of the people, but Jesus blamed the preacher. “I have a few things against you, sir.” “You have there those that hold the doctrine of Balaam.” “You also have them that hold to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans.”
It is a good thing to be courageous. There is no doubt about that. But courage must be consistent. If one will stand up to enemies outside the church, he must also stand up to enemies inside the church. The inconsistent courage of the pastor of Pergamos was greatly displeasing to the Lord Jesus Christ. The good that he had done in standing fast during the martyrdom of Antipas did not make him exempt from serious criticism and promised discipline upon the church.
You know it is one thing to stand in the pulpit and ‘blast’ the enemies of the gospel on the outside of the church. It is quite another thing to confront sin in the lives of those sitting in front of you on Sunday morning. Sadly, many preachers choose to be safe rather than faithful. Their ‘courage’ is selective and inconsistent.
The churches are called upon to choose as pastors men with consistent courage.
Consider the pastor of Thyatira,
19 I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.
20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols. KJV
The reasons that I place this man in a little better place than the pastor of Pergamos are: (1) he is improving and (2) he has only one issue rather of error rather than two. The difference is slight but worth mentioning.
Look at the commendable traits: love, service, faith. The mention of ‘thy works’ twice here in the English seems odd. Possibly the second mention of his works is tied to the improvement, “and the last of thy works to be more than the first.” He is moving in the right direction and we might be encouraged to think that maybe he was stirred by this review to make serious corrections.
Here, again, we have the issue of teaching people to commit fornication. The linking of it with the eating of things sacrificed to idols brings to mind the issues at Corinth.
You know, it is difficult to imagine that there was open and flagrant immorality within the church. Certainly the Lord Jesus would not even recognize such a church as a church or even bother to address a preacher who would tolerate it. It is easier to think that the issue was more subtle, similar, again, to that at Corinth. There immorality was being tolerated and even that was so serious that Paul warned, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” I wonder if the issue had to do with teachings on marriage, divorce and remarriage which were contrary to the teachings of Christ. We know that He had a huge issue with divorce and remarriage for any cause as practiced by the Jews of His day. The Greeks had the same problems in their culture. And here is a preacher who is not standing fast but is allowing the prevailing behaviors of the day to infect the church and even allowing teachings within the church contrary to those of Christ and affirmed by Paul.
The churches must understand that God-called men have a duty to uphold marriage consistently with the standards of scripture and not allow or allow to be taught within our churches doctrines and practices contrary to scripture and the historic positions of the Christian church.
The churches must make sure that they hear this. Your pastor may seem to you to be more legalistic than the sweet guy down the street. That guy may be all open and nice and not nearly as ‘judgmental’ as your preacher. Be careful. That man may be under the discipline of God or he may not even be one recognized by God as a minister of His gospel. Your preacher is duty bound by God to uphold Biblical morality and you are duty bound to support him so long as he is faithful to scripture. Make sure that any preacher you ever choose is committed to the same principles.
The Boss demands it.
Next, we have the Ephesian pastor, Rev. 2:1-7.
I am going to confess to you that I can identify with this guy in some ways and I really sort of feel sorry for him. This is a brutal review of a good man.
2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. KJV
This is a hard-working, courageous, consistent preacher who is faithful and enduring in his labors. Since there is no mention of error being tolerated in his church, we know that he did not permit it, that he faithfully and diligently taught his people truth and how to discriminate between truth and error. We also see no mention of the toleration of immorality, which tells us that he held dogmatically to the moral purity laid down by Jesus and the apostles. This was a ‘no-quarter,’ ‘no-quit,’ pastor.
The charge laid against him is interesting to me, “you have left your first love.” I can almost hear Jesus saying, “you have let your work in the ministry come between us.” I know that many preachers can identify with the problem. The work is so intense and he is so intense in it, there is so much to do, so many things to keep together and think about, that he had left off, either in frequency or devotion or passion, his personal worship and communion with Christ.
Here is an important issue that both preachers and churches must hear. The pastor must maintain an intense, close and passionate communion with Jesus Christ by seeking Him in daily and frequently extended seasons of prayer. This means that he cannot do everything, including maybe visiting Aunt Suzy in the hospital to have her toe nail removed.
I fully believe that if this issue of the personal devotion of the man of God to Christ is pursued rightly, there will be weeks when the preacher really can do nothing other than prepare the messages for the church services. There may even be times when his seeking of God may keep him from the pulpit.
The threat of Jesus here concerning the loss of devotion to Him by the preacher is no small thing. The thing that distinguishes a man as “apt to teach” from others is not his manner and style in the pulpit nor even his gift of oratory. It is the ability to see clearly what others miss, to make applications of truth that others do not see, and to see the arguments for the truth of scripture that to the average Bible student are invisible. It is the “light” of God upon his mind as he contemplates spiritual truth. Without it he is as blind as a bat concerning important truths and the proper applications of them. He cannot survive without this light and Jesus will not continually give it to a man who leaves his ‘first love.’ Both the man and the church are judged when this happens and both suffer. One wonders if there is any way back once this light has been taken away.
What I am saying here is that both the church and the preacher have a very powerful interest in the man staying close to God. The church does not have the right to make demands on him that intrude into and diminish his personal relationship with God.
The last two guys get almost no mention in any discussions of the seven churches and yet these two are noticeably the best of the seven preachers. There are no negative comments made about them.
The pastor at Philadelphia, 3:7-13.
This is the guy that I want to be.
7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;
8 I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. KJV
This man has “a little strength,” as judged by the Lord Jesus. I am reminded of what He said concerning “a little faith.”
Matt 17:20 …If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. KJV
A “little strength” as estimated by Christ is enormous strength as measured by men. The man is not overwrought with his own powerful proclamation of the word. It has not gone to his head. He knows that it is Jesus Himself who has opened the door of the gospel at Philadelphia and he knows that it is Jesus who holds the door open, forbidding anyone to close it.
This man is faithful with no negatives to his credit and he is the one that the Lord has blessed with an Awakening in his city.
I often wonder, gentlemen, if the problem at Bridgetown is not more the preacher than anything else. It certainly is not the culture for Philadelphia was as corrupt as any place on the planet. There is no credit given to the members of the church, for they are not even mentioned.
It is this man, his faithfulness, that has moved the Lord to set before him an open door. He has no ‘name’ that he is living. He does not think of himself as ‘rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing.’ Here is an humble servant of God whom history has forgotten whose flame burned bright for a little while and even God Himself reviewing his ministry found nothing to rebuke.
Oh, that God would grant us the kind of faithfulness that would produce such a result. I am convinced, my brethren, that we are in need of a real revival among the preachers of our country.
If only every church had such a man to lead them!
And, finally, the pastor at Smyrna, 2:8-11.
8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;
9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. KJV
What a contrast with Laodicea. Whereas the guy at Laodicea was evidently pretty well off, this guy is poor. And whereas Jesus called the man at L. “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,” He says of this preacher, “thou art rich.” Which one would you rather be?
Evidently the books and videos were not selling well at Smyrna. And, apparently, this guy was not a good enough speaker to get invited to the big stage. In fact, his church and his ministry were under siege and it was about to get worse. The devil, it appears, is intending to completely stamp out the church at Smyrna. And, I wonder if Jesus is telling him that he is going to die as a martyr. “Be thou faithful unto death,” Jesus said.
Who was this guy? What mark did he leave on history? Where are his books? What was his name? Maybe Polycarp? He did indeed die as a martyr several years later, but at Rome, not Smyrna.
I am pretty sure that he was faithful unto death and that he will receive the crown of a martyr, that his notice before the Great Judgment will be a glorious one.
The odd thing that I find is that this is the shortest of the notes, job reviews, given to maybe the best pastor of the lot. Apparently, he didn’t need his ego stroked much either.
Oh, may God grant to His called pastors the faithfulness of these two men and may He grant to His churches the great wisdom to choose such as their pastors. May He raise up such for the churches to choose. May He grant those who have such men the good sense to hold on to them and hold them up constantly in prayer and follow them, if necessary, to death.
May the churches of Jesus Christ at large hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches and choose good men to lead them and let the frauds go.
Now, here is the thing that every saint who considers these ideas must face. Would you be willing to follow the kind of man that Jesus Christ approves, or would you choose one with whom Christ has major problems.
You will notice that the four pastors criticized heavily are the kind of men that many people expect to find pastoring the church: confident, self assured men, men with large reputations but who do not challenge their people by word and example, and men who allow most anything to go on in the church. These are the ones that people have come to expect and, in some places, even demand.
Would you be willing to follow a man like the pastor at Ephesus who tolerated no nonsense, or a man like the pastor at Philadelphia who was mightily empowered by God to proclaim the gospel so as to change a city, or a man destined to be martyred for the gospel? Would you help him, stand with him, support him and encourage him? Or, would you wander away to someone not quite so challenging.
I want you to know that I do not consider myself like either of these blessed men. BUT, I long to be like them. They are my heroes. I am seeking God to make me faithful like those men. I am constantly praying that He would give me an open door to preach the gospel.
Will you help me?