Report Cards

Original Date: 
Sunday, May 17, 2015

Revelation 2-3 Report Cards

Report Cards
I was one of those weird kids who looked forward to report card day. I’ve always been highly competitive, and the thing that I was best at was schoolwork. So I always looked forward to the day that grades came out and I could compare my grades to my buddies; because, usually, my grades were better than theirs. (You’ll find this hard to believe, but I could be pretty obnoxious as a kid.)

And, of course, I liked to bring my report card home to my parents because they’d be proud of me and I had a great-grandma who gave us a little money for every A and that was fun too.

There’s one time I remember, though, that I wasn’t looking forward to taking my report card home. It was in the 2nd grade, and I was in Miss Schutte’s class. And at some point during my 2nd grade year, I decided I wasn’t going to do any of my worksheets. I just started hoarding them inside my desk. At worksheet time I’d read a book or go work at one of the individualized study stations. And this went on until I had a regular old rats’ nest in my desk.

But then, the inevitable came. Miss Schutte asked everybody in the class to turn in a specific worksheet, and I couldn’t find mine. I remember the panic I felt as everybody in the class waited for me to find my sheet, and finally Miss Schutte walked down the aisle and took a look inside my desk!

I had to miss a whole lot of recesses until I got those worksheets done, and I was terrified when I had to bring my next report card home—the report card that revealed that I wasn’t doing my work.

Looking back on it now, I realize that Miss Schutte and my parents probably knew all along that I wasn’t doing my homework. They also weren’t too worried about it, because they knew I was actually working ahead of the rest of my class and as long as I wasn’t being disruptive they were going to see how long I held out. I didn’t know that at the time though, all I knew was that I was busted.

All that to say, I want to talk about report cards today. The purpose of a report card is to let you know where you stand. It’s a progress report. So it lets you know how you are doing in your “progress” to meet certain standards. A good report card—that is, an effective report card—lets you know what you are doing well as well as what you need to work on. My second grade report card said I was doing well with my reading and my testing, but I needed to get better at turning my work in on time. A lot better.

And what we’re going to look at today is sort of like Jesus’ report card for His churches.

We’re studying the book of Revelation, and Revelation is really a letter to seven first century churches. It was written by John (whom we believe to be the Apostle John) while he was imprisoned on the penal island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor (which we know today as Turkey). And it mentions churches in seven cities—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatria, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.

A couple of weeks ago, we put up a map. If you look at it, you’ll notice that these seven cities make a kind of circle, almost like a postal route. If you start at Ephesus and go clock wise, you can stop in each of these towns. So it is believed that once John finished writing Revelation, the book—or the scroll—would have been taken to each of these churches to be read aloud in their worship gatherings.

And so, the whole book is for each of these churches—and for us too. But to each church, there’s a special section addressed directly to them. That’s what chapters 2 and 3 are: the letters to the seven churches. And to me, these letters read sort of like report cards. Jesus tells these churches what they are doing well, and He also tells them what they need to work on.

Jesus is not an absentee landlord. When John sees the resurrected Christ in chapter one, Jesus is walking in the midst of his churches, represented by seven lampstands. Jesus knows full well what each one of these seven churches is facing. He knows their struggles, their victories and their failures. In fact, in each of these letters Jesus says: “I know.” Jesus knows what is going on in His church.

And scholars say that these seven churches are representative of Christ’s church throughout all of history. The triumphs, failures and struggles of these churches “are a kind of miniature catalogue of the sorts of things that we can expect to find in other churches throughout history.” (Poythress, p. 83) What Jesus says to these first century churches, He says to us in the 21st. Therefore, each of these seven letters ends with the same refrain: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

So what is it that Christ is evaluating in His churches? What are the standards that Christ uses to grade how we are doing?

We’re not going to have time to look at all seven letters, but there are some themes that I’ve found in them that I believe are particularly relevant to our day. Four things which Christ wants us to check on:

Duty vs. Delight
1. First, we must check our passion. Christ wants us to remain passionately committed to serving Him.

Consider the church in Ephesus. In Revelation 2:2 we’re told the good things that are happening in this church. Jesus says:

2I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

This is a solid church. This is a church that appears to have it all together. Jesus talks about their hard work. In other words, this is the kind of church that, when there’s something to be done, people show up to do it.

Jesus also says that it’s a church that cannot tolerate wicked men. They test those who claim to be apostles, and if they find them false they have nothing to do with them. They know what they believe, and they’re sticking to it.

And Jesus says that they have persevered and endured hardships for my name. This is no flash in the pan church. They haven’t given up. They’re committed.

Like I said, this Ephesian church is a solid church. If this were a report card, they’d be getting “A”’s in all these areas. They’re determined, discerning and disciplined.

But there’s a problem. Verse 4:

4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.

This is the “needs improvement” section of their report card. They’ve lost their love. They’ve lost their sense of delight, and replaced it with a sense of duty. There’s no passion.

Pay attention to this, because it happens to churches today too. These folks are good at showing up, they work hard. They’ve got a solid sense of what they believe, and they’ll fight for it. They a have a lot of tradition in their church, and they’re proud of it.

But there’s no joy of the Lord left. People aren’t in the church because they’re passionate about Jesus, they’re there because that’s what they’ve always done. Church has become a duty. A part of their routine.

And Jesus tells them that they need to recover that love they had at first, or they’re in danger of ending as a church. Genuine Christianity includes an element of delight. Jesus isn’t interested in a group of people who are just going through the motions of church. He wants people who are whole-heartedly in love with Him. People whose hearts are captured by the gospel.

Jesus says essentially the same thing in his letter to Sardis, the 5th church. In chapter 3 verse 1 He says:

1…I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.

There’s a real temptation to do what I call “time clock” church. You punch in on Sunday morning and hope God is giving you some sort of credit for being in attendance. But you’re not really engaged. There’s no love for God.

The danger is that a church can sleepwalk through all the motions of being a church. Worship on Sunday morning, Sunday School for the kids, prayer meeting on Wednesday nights, and so on. It looks alive, but Jesus says it is dead. I’ve preached in churches where, if I wasn’t the one speaking, I never would have wanted to attend. There’s just no passion. Church becomes a duty instead of a delight.

So, that’s the first thing. Jesus is grading us on our passion.

Holding Up Under Hardship
2. Second, Christ wants us to check our faithfulness. Christ wants us to stick with him even when circumstances get tough.

This is what was happening to the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia. Both of these churches were undergoing persecution, and there was a risk that the severity of their circumstances would pull them away from Christ. Here’s what Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, in 2:9:

9I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.

And what He says to Philadelphia in 3:8 and 9 is similar:

8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you

Both of these churches were facing persecution, and not so much from the Roman authorities as from the Jewish synagogues. Apparently, the Jews in each town were jealous of the success the gospel was having and so they started to spread rumors—slander and lies—about what Christians did. As a result, they were suffering economically. They were poor. They had little strength.

The thing about both Smyrna and Philadelphia is that they held up under this persecution. These are the only two letters in this section in which Jesus has nothing negative to say about the churches. They were both getting straight “A”’s.

But you can imagine how circumstances like that could threaten to pull these folks away from Jesus. They had to wonder if following Jesus was really worth it. They were faithful, and Christ praises them for it.

And Christ wants the same from us. Sometimes when adversity comes into your life, you’re going to wonder if sticking with Jesus really makes a difference. For us, it probably won’t be persecution, but it could be other circumstances: illness, family problems, a lost job. In those situations, the temptation is just to say that being faithful isn’t worth it. It seems so easy to quit on Jesus, because it seems like maybe He’s quit on you.

There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if believing in Jesus was really worth it. When my dad got a cancer diagnosis and was gone within 3 months. Times when being a pastor has seemed like more trouble then it was worth. I’m sure all of you have encountered circumstances where it seemed like being a Christian wasn’t helping, or maybe even made it worse. Maybe you feel that way today.

But we have to hear what Jesus says to the church in Smyrna at the end of 2:10:

Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Smyrna was a city built on a mountain and it was sometimes said that its walls looked like a crown. In fact, they printed coins depicting their goddess—Cybele—wearing a crown made out of the city battlements. Now Jesus uses that image to show there is something better than the trials of this life. Even if the very worst thing happened to you—even if you lost your life--Jesus says He has something better in store for you.

Stay faithful, He says. Hang in there. Hold onto Jesus. And even the worst thing will be transformed into life.

Jesus is grading us on our faithfulness.

Love vs. Truth
3. Third, Christ wants us to check our exclusivity. I had a tough time coming up with the right word here, but I think exclusivity is right. Christ wants us to be loyal to Him and Him alone.

The danger here is that we will be caught up in cultural trends that lead us away from God. That’s what was happening in both Pergamum and Thyatira. In Pergamum, there was persecution, but the church remained faithful. They were getting an “A” as far as that goes (2:13). But they also needed some improvement, chapter 2, verse 14:

14Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.

In Thyatira, they were almost the exact opposite of the Ephesians. According to 2:19, they were doing great with love—doing more than they did at first even—but they were struggling to keep their doctrine pure. 2:20:

20Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.

The problem for both these churches was that they were tolerating some false teaching. It’s not like they were leaving Christ for a different religion, but they were allowing parts of other religions to creep in—going along with the popular beliefs of the day—and to Jesus that was the same as if they’d denied Him altogether.

That’s what the references to Balaam and Jezebel are all about. Both are Old Testament figures. Balaam was a prophet whom the Moabites brought in to curse Israel. But every time he opened his mouth to give a curse, God put words of blessing in there. So he came up with a different plan to corrupt Israel, he told the Moabite king Balak to send in the Moabite women to intermarry with Israel, and as they did they brought along their idols and beliefs and Israel’s faith became compromised.

Jezebel was wicked King Ahab’s queen, and she didn’t so much tell people to stop worshipping Jehovah as she encouraged them to also worship her gods. In both cases, to God that was like spiritual adultery. His people were two-timing Him.

And something similar is apparently confronting Pergamum and Thyatira. There were pagan religions and temple cults popular in both of these cities, and the Christians were encouraged to go along with those practices as well as believing in Jesus. In some cases, there were even economic repercussions if they did not. But Jesus says that mixed religion is no religion at all.

And you can see how the pull of culture is also tugging at churches today. We may not deal with pagan cults, but we feel the pressure to be “politically correct.” We’re told that the sexual mores of the Bible no longer work in the 21st century. We’re told that we should celebrate a diversity of religious viewpoints, and if we don’t we’re labeled as intolerant.

In fact, a Pew Forum Survey found that 7 out of every 10 Americans believe many religions can lead to eternal life. That included 52% of all Christians surveyed. Apparently they believe Jesus was lying or just kidding when He said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

There are all kinds of pressure to compromise with the culture—go along to get along--but Christ calls us to stay loyal only to Him.

Jesus is grading us on our exclusivity.

Dealing with Plenty
4. Then, fourth and finally, Christ wants us to check our dependence. Christ wants us to see our need for Him.

The danger here is that we’ll think we don’t need God’s help anymore. This is the problem for the church in Laodicea, and it’s pretty much the opposite of Smyrna and Philadelphia. Those churches were persecuted and poor, they were small and weak. But not Laodicea. Laodicea doesn’t have any problems with persecution or any doctrinal disputes. They’re not having trouble with love or service. They’re problem is that they are rich.

That’s what 3:17 says:

17You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.'

Laodicea was a center of banking and business. They had a thriving industry of making garments out of black wool. They had a world famous hospital that manufactured a salve which took infections out of eyes. They were such a wealthy city that about 50 years earlier when a devastating earthquake hit the city and the Roman Empire’s equivalent of FEMA showed up to help them rebuild, the Laodiceans sent them away saying they didn’t need any help, they’d rebuild themselves. And they did. And they were proud of that fact.

So the church in Laodicea probably shared in that wealth. And they thought they were in good shaped. Blessed by God even.

But Jesus comes along with his harshest assessment yet. Of the seven letters, Laodicea is the only one that has nothing good said about it. This isn’t a “needs improvement”, it’s actually a failing grade. This is what He says in 3:15 and 16:

15I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

The water in Laodicea was bad, they had to pipe it in from some distant hot springs and by the time it got to Laodicea it was lukewarm and full of minerals. If you weren’t a native, drinking Laodicea’s water was a surefire invitation to getting sick. Kind of like Mexico City.

And Jesus says the Christians are just like the water! They’re rich and comfortable, and as a result they’re lukewarm. They’re coasting through life. They have no idea what it’s like to be a Christian. They can’t relate to the struggles their brothers and sisters in the other churches are dealing with. They think they have no struggle at all.

And Jesus says it makes Him sick!

Of all the churches in these two chapters, Laodicea is probably the one most similar to the American church today. We live in a nation of wealth. For the most part, we’re materially comfortable. We think we don’t have any real struggles.

But Jesus says we have to stay alert, because it’s our comfort that might just pull us away from Him. We might become so confident of our wealth, that we’ll think we don’t need Jesus anymore.

I was listening to the radio Thursday morning and they were talking about the latest Pew Forum survey, which has revealed that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has again gone down. They were speculating about why that might be, and one of the hosts suggested that it is because we have too much stuff. He quoted an African Christian who said something like: “I feel bad for American Christians. You have money and God. In Africa, we only have God.”

When we have too much we might forget our need for God.

Jesus is grading us on our dependence.

Jesus is Watching
Jesus is watching His church. That’s not meant to be a threat, it’s an encouragement. Jesus knows what is going on, He walks with us, He gives us promises of victory in the end.

But it’s important to know what Jesus is watching for. It’s important that we pay attention to the things that are important to Him.
• So we need to check our passion: is church a delight for us, or has it become a duty?
• We need to check our faithfulness. Are we able to hold up under hardship?
• We need to check our exclusivity: Are we loyal to Jesus and Jesus alone, or are we being tugged away by the beliefs of our culture?
• And we need to check our dependence: Are we aware of how much we need Him, or do we think we can do it on our own?

Christ is putting together report cards for His Church. In each of these letters He promises that those who “overcome”—that is, those who pass these tests—will be rewarded by Him.

So Christ is grading the church, and I pray that when our report cards are handed in we’ll find that we have passing grades.