Jesus’s SWOT analysis of the Western Church today – Revelation Series 3

church

This is part 3 of our Revelation articles in Christian Today

If only God would speak to us. If only he would show us what he wants. If only he would reveal himself to us, then we would believe. That is often the refrain from the non-believer.

Ah, says the Christian, he has – in Christ.

But, comes the response, where is Jesus now? We need him to speak to us.

And how does he do so? The terrifying answer is that the Lord reveals himself to the world, largely through his church. It’s a scary thought because the church often appears to be so messed up – and messy church too often leads to messy and confused views of Christ.

Jesus’ letter to the ‘angel’ (possibly the pastor) of the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2 gives us a big clue as to how this works. Richard Bauckham in his superb The Theology of the Book of Revelation points out that the role of Christ in prophesying to the churches is essential to our prophesying to the world. In other words, if we are not listening to Christ, then we will not be able to communicate him to the world. I suspect that much of the reason for the decline of the church in the Western world is not the state of the society, but rather the state of the church. We have ceased to listen to the words of Christ and as a result the world has ceased to listen to us. Christ’s warnings, commendations and promises to the church in Ephesus in the 21st Century are surely apposite to us in the 21st Century as well. It deals with one of the great missing links in the church in the UK today – passion!

Ephesus

Ephesus was a Greek colony in modern day Turkey. It was a busy commercial port situated near the mouth of the Cayster river and was considered the gateway to Asia. It was also the headquarters of the cult of the Greek goddess Diana. Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world with 127 marble columns each 62 feet high. Beside her temple was an impressive 25,000 seater stadium, the ruins of which you can still visit today. The Ephesians prided themselves on being particularly civilised and enlightened – indeed, the city was known as the light of Asia.

The church in Ephesus had quite a spectacular start (which you can read about in Acts 19). The baptism of the Holy Spirit, a three month series of debates by Paul in the local synagogue, two years of daily lectures in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, extraordinary handkerchief miracles, casting out of evil spirits and a massive city-wide riot leading to Paul and his companions being shouted at in the stadium for two hours, before they were rescued by the Roman magistrate and then left the city. It is to this church that Christ speaks several decades later in Revelation 2:1-7.

Christ knows his people – the analysis that really matters is not the SWOT (Stengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) survey done by the Christian professional who evaluates your church. It is the SWOT analysis done by the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. He knows. He knows everything. We cannot fool Christ for one second. Its why hypocrisy in church is just so dumb; we are fooling only ourselves.

The Ephesian church had some great strengths. They were hardworking. They persevered – after all, John was in prison on Patmos because of the persecution the church in Ephesus faced. They were doctrinally sound (they hated the practices of the Nicolaitans – idolatry and sexual immorality). And they were tireless. Sometimes in our analysis of the church, whether locally or nationally, we can be too negative. Perhaps our temprement or frustration means that we do not see or acknowledge the strengths. It might be a wise thing for us to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write down the things in our church that we can give thanks for.

But Christ also sees the weaknesses. And for them it was a hard one to take: they had lost their first love. The last time Paul saw the Ephesian elders, on the beach at Miletus (Acts 20:17-38) he warned them with tears that savage wolves would come from outside and from within to attack the flock. He warned about those who would use the gospel to make money and who would forget the weak. I am sure that this applies to many of the churches in the West today.

But it is this one specific accusation of Christ which really strikes home to my heart: “You have forsaken the love you had at first”. Christ searches our hearts. Orthodoxy is not enough. Hard work is not enough. Indeed it is all too easy to be so preoccupied with Christian service that we can turn away from Christ himself. What we do for the Lord is important – but even more so is why we do it. We need passion as well as purity – love as well as work. It is interesting that the term love is used more than 20 times in Ephesians. You would think that the Holy Spirit knew what their weakness was going to be!

Losing our first love is much more than losing a feeling, but we do need to examine our hearts to see if the passion is still there.

How do we know? Octavius Winslow, the 19th Century evangelical preacher, gives us a helpful checklist to enable us to know where we are at. God becomes less an object of desire and contemplation; there is a loss of confidence and trust in God; we have hard thoughts of God in his dealings; we feel it a duty rather than privilege in spiritual exercises; we have less spiritual sensitivity; Christ becomes less glorious to the eye and precious to the heart; our love to Christ’s people starts to decay; our interest in the advancement and prosperity of the cause of Christ begins to wane. It is so easy for us to take refuge in formality and become professional Christians. It is so easy to fall from the works of love to hard labour.

That’s the diagnosis, but what’s the cure?

Christ calls us to remember and contrast the warmth of the Ephesians’ past devotion with their present coldness, and to repent. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV) Martin Luther was surely right to identify daily repentance as a characteristic of a living and growing Christian. We are also to do. We are not just to sit around and wait for the feeling to return, we are to do the things we did at first.

And there is a stark warning. If we don’t, Christ will come and remove the lampstand. We will cease to be his church. A church without love cannot remain a church, no matter how orthodox its creed.Ichabod, ‘the glory has departed’, was written over Ephesus, which largely disappeared as both a city and a church. I wonder how many churches in the UK today are dead shells, living off past glories and not experiencing or expressing the love of Christ? We speak of the love of Christ… but we don’t know it. It is our greatest need – as Paul told the Ephesians: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know….” (Ephesians 1:18)

Christ has so much more to offer us. We are living off the memories of past meals when he has a feast for us now and in heaven. He gives his victorious people the right to eat from the tree of life. The curse of the exclusion from Eden is taken away and the door is open to Paradise. How sad it is when people believe the lie of the devil that he is the author of pleasure. He is the distorter and perverter of pleasure, not its author. It is at God’s right hand that there are pleasures evermore (Psalm 16:11). Why give up the eternal pleasures, beauties, glories and gifts of Christ for the short-lived, shallow and empty delusions of the evil one?

What better way to finish than Paul’s wonderful prayer for the Ephesians:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:14-21)

The other two articles are here:

The Living Christ, the Real Presence and Real Salvation – Revelation part 2 (ch.1:4-18)

Welcome to the Apocalypse

 


11 thoughts on “Jesus’s SWOT analysis of the Western Church today – Revelation Series 3

  1. David,

    I love what you have written here.

    “Savage wolves would come from outside and from within to attack the flock… I am sure that this applies to many of the churches in the West today… Orthodoxy is not enough. Hard work is not enough. Indeed it is all too easy to be so preoccupied with Christian service that we can turn away from Christ himself.”

    And this, is an issue with Christian culture whether it be the dourness of the Presbyterian, the guilt ridden Catholic or the happy clappy of the Charismatic.

    What power does Satan have that doesn’t come with lies? You mentioned the Greek goddess Dianna – so worship accompanied by exotic dancing and women being encouraged to spend time away from families and usurp men. And money neglecting the weak. Men liking the limelight perhaps – having high places, being greeted in the marketplace, and being called “teacher” while neglecting the most vulnerable – the widows and orphans.

    Jesus saying that pure religion was to care for such and avoid being polluted by the world.

    Now don’t get me wrong, there are indeed times to feel sad, guilty and happy but if human tradition has taken place of Christ then along with a western work ethic we easily lose the joy of the Lord and the strength that God provides that goes along with that. It also makes church unattractive to anyone outside of the church. What better way does Satan have of trying to keep people away from the fullness of life offered by Christ than making Christians appear to be overly sad, guilt ridden or so happy to be deluded and removed from reality? Yet God laughs at his enemies!

    So for many – the church as such being alienating, including Christians and many attracted to the “invisible church” that Martin Luther talked of. Perhaps something to think of in the light of many considering themselves to be “spiritual but not religious”.

    So a reasonable question to ask follows does it not as to where is God’ present in power love and sound mind and how to be involved in that. The “why” question if asked may or may not lead to understanding but faith without works is dead faith.

  2. Hello,
    Could you tell me the name of the book/article/sermon by Octavius Winslow that you refer to in the above article please?
    Thank you.

  3. Thank you. Much appreciated.

    And what a finish from Ephesians, to lead us into worship with a true knowledge that surpasses knowledge!

    And what a filling, a replete completeness, bursting to overflowing, an outflowing of the triune God. An experience of the enjoyment of God and glorifying Him, the main purpose of and for humanity.

    And why would we want more or settle for less?

  4. Adam Julians says, “the guilt ridden Catholic”. Thanks for that stereotypical comment, Adam. It’s about as useful as ‘dour Presbyterian’. I’m not so familiar with Presbyterians as Catholics but none of the Presbyterians I know are ‘dour’ and I’ve yet to meet a ‘guilt-ridden Catholic’. If there are any ‘guilt-ridden Catholics’ they are probably the ones who know little about Catholic doctrine and understand what they know even less. Yes, Catholics are encouraged to examine their consciences, ideally at the end of each day, but if that makes them ‘guilt-ridden’ then something is sadly missing. I wouldn’t exactly consider St Ignatius Loyola, St John of the Cross or St Theresa of Avila ‘guilt-ridden’. In his radio message of 26 October 1946, Pope Pius XII said, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” But he also said, “To know Jesus crucified is to know God’s horror of sin; its guilt could be washed away only in the precious blood of God’s only begotten Son become man.” Any Catholic who is ‘guilt-ridden’ has simply not listened to the words of the Gospel as they are read out at Mass every Sunday.

    1. Mike – if you had took me as intended, you would have released that there was somewhat of a tongue in cheek comment about dourness and self deprecation in that given that I am a member of a Presbyterian church, grew up in the 1970’s with Rickky Fulton’s “Last Call”, a parody of the “Late Call” – a 5 minute talk given inevitably by a Presbyterian minister after the evening news and the gentle teasing I have made at times of David with likening him to private Frazer out of Dad’s Army with “were doomed”. haha

      So my humour might not be your cup of tea “stereotypical” or not. – I’m OK with that. But I have to say, stereotypes are funny haha. Maybe you are not a fan of Ricky Fulton.

      Onto the more serious issue of the point I was making. of the church being alienating in the light of what David rightly talked of – “savage wolves would come from outside and from within to attack the flock” and faith without works being dead faith. This “sense of sin” yes is an important issue, Yet at the same time, I would return to e point about many people thinking that they are “bad” and asking if the church in her attempts to be sincere in addressing sin is not at often times doing what Jesus accused teachers of the Law doing with creating burdens too heavy to carry. And I would ask is there a time for balancing the doctrine of original sin with a doctrine of original goodness.

      You have made a criticism of my “stereotypical” comment. Now, Sir, if you would, would you care to engage in a discussion about balance between emphasis on sin and goodness as humanity was created by God in the beginning?

  5. The discussion between Adam and Mike may be a little off topic but, in a way, it’s not because it brings us back to Jesus Christ, the last Adam, and a new creation in Him.

    We get our natural identity (sinful) from the first Adam, for Adam had a son “in his own likeness, in his own image.” (Genesis 5:3)

    Adam was created to be in the image and likeness of God but was most unlike God. Since then all humanity has been born in the likeness of Adam the father of humanity. Humanity is all in Adam and in Adam all die. (I Cor 15), When Adam sinned, all of humanity, sinned in him as born into a sinful dead humanity, into his identity, a chip off the old block. “Russian dolls,” might be an illustration of this point.

    Ever since Gen 4 men have fathered children in their own sinful image, flesh giving birth to flesh (John 3:6)

    But here, at the very place of doom and gloom God issued a promised declaration of hope of salvation, a promised “seed” of the “woman”. (Gen 3:15). and gives her a new name Eve (meaning life).

    As John Henry Newman puts it:

    O loving wisdom of our God!
    When all was sin and shame,
    A second Adam to the fight
    And to the rescue came.

    Oh wisest love! that flesh and blood,
    Which did in Adam fail,
    Should strive afresh against the foe,
    Should strive and should prevail.

    Life would come to Adam’s race through a child.

    What was needed was new, a recreation. A new humanity, a new Adam with no human father. Like Adam he must have no father but God. A virgin would need to conceive by the power of God the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 7:34, Luke1:35) and just as the Spirit hovered over the waters in Genesis he would overshadow Mary, that the one to be born would be head of a new humanity and a new creation. Joseph and Mary could never have produced

    Thus side-lining inherited sin from Adam to become the “last Adam”. And Mary was the “woman” from whom the promised seed came.

    So we are either “in Adam” or the last Adam Jesus Christ, part of the sinful old humanity, or a new righteous humanity in Christ Jesus.

    Hope this adds to David’s original blog that we might know and love Jesus more dearly, the Alpha and Omega of “Revelation,” the author and finisher of our faith, rather than detracts by tangential of we commentators.

    It mostly comes from “Christ Our Life” by Michael Reeves.

    1. Geoff,

      You are picking up on what I was talking about with balance yes – either the “sinful old humanity, or a new righteous humanity”, so we are part sinful, part righteous with our identity (if it is in Christ) as righteous, as being created good as God created humanity and as “in Christ” and in God’s eyes one can be ever though not being without sin – and that being grace.

      Pretty cool hey?

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