Editor's Note: This blog was originally published here.
“Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked,
but now commands all men everywhere to repent”
(Acts 17:30. Paul’s message to Athens.)
Contrary to popular opinion, the Lord’s final word to the Church was not the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). It was the message of Revelation 2-3. To five of the seven churches of Asia Minor, that final word was: “Repent.”
I was 27 years old, pastoring a small church on Alligator Bayou west of New Orleans, a recent seminary graduate, and being interviewed by a pastor search committee. The chairman of the committee, a distinguished businessman, said to me, “Pastor, what do you believe about repentance?”
I answered, “There is no salvation without repentance. Twice in Luke 13, our Lord told people ‘Except ye repent, ye shall all perish.'”
What I did not know was that this was a big deal to that astute layman. He had been a lukewarm church member all his life and knew from personal experience the kind of flawed product easy believism turns out. At the age of 43–ten years before our encounter–he had been righteously, gloriously, fully saved, and nothing was ever the same. He wanted none of the easy-going churchism that so often passed for the genuine article if he could help it.
He came to the right boy. The Lord had been impressing upon me the importance and necessity of repentance in Scripture and in life.
The Greek word for repentance metanoia means to have a change of mind which results in a life change. The message is preached throughout Scripture, but particularly in the New Testament. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
You’re traveling a highway. Suddenly, you realize you’re going the wrong way and look for the next opportunity to do a U-turn. I’ve done that a hundred times. Before the change of direction, there is a change of mind.
I started to major in one field, then realized it was wrong for me and reversed those plans. I had planned to marry her but realized it was wrong and put a stop to that. I wanted to move to that pastorate, but when given the opportunity I knew it was wrong and called the committee to cancel the plans.
Repentance happens all the time, almost daily for most of us. We see we’re doing something wrong, instant regret sets it, and we look for the next opportunity to do a full reversal. We repent.
It is critical that we see how our Lord called five of the seven churches of Asia Minor to repentance.
Ephesus was commanded to repent of a failure to love. (Revelation 2:5) They were doing good work and showing good faith in numerous ways. But one thing was lacking: They were not loving one another, and that negated everything positive they were doing. Ephesus, go back and read John 13:34-35. Love is the proof of a believer! And though you have the tongues of angels and give your body to be burned, without love it all comes to nothing! (I Corinthians 13)
Pergamos was to repent of its weakness in allowing the heresies of Balaam and Nicolaus to flourish inside the congregation. (Revelation 2:16) God hated those heresies and earlier complimented the Ephesus: “This you also have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (2:6). Wake up, Pergamos! You’re allowing the termites free run of the foundation. Call the exterminator!!
Thyatira was to repent of allowing “that woman Jezebel” to spread her false teachings and lead God’s people into immorality and idolatry. (Revelation 2:21-22) I suspect Thyatira’s problem was full-out cowardice. The leaders just did not want to stand up to this hateful specimen of femininity. I know at least one pastor who took on the Jezebel in his church and still carries the scars from that encounter. Be strong, Thyatira! Show some courage!
Sardis was to repent of its deadness (Revelation 3:3). The thing is, Sardis was asleep, comatose, lethargic and apparently liked it that way. Had the church truly been dead in every sense of the word, the people would presumably have been lost. The fact that the Lord addresses them as his church and has a warning for them shows they are saved, although they’re in big trouble. A few faithful remain in the church, which may have meant the difference for them. We remember Abraham interceding for Sodom, and learning that even ten righteous people would have saved it from destruction. “Awake thou that sleepest,” says Ephesians 5:14, “arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Listen up, Sardis!
Laodicea was to repent of its lukewarmness (Revelation 3:19). Interestingly, the Lord says He would prefer it be either cold or hot. Anything but this sickening tepid, lukewarmness. “I will vomit you out of my mouth,” He says. Pretty strong. The solution–we’re not the first to be stunned by this–is to receive Jesus! They have excluded Him by their complacency. (Surely no one could have Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, living in their home and be bored! They had quietly and steadily ushered Him outside and were now paying the consequence.) Come back, Laodicea! Start all over again.
How would a church go about repenting?
I suspect that when the Lord faults a church for cowardice or coldness or something else, the problem is almost always with the leadership. Leadership sets the direction for a church and determines a thousand things about its directions, its emphases, its ministries. So, since the disease begins here, the cure should begin here also.
Let leaders become aware of their sin.
Let them make no excuses, blame no one, and give up trying to rationalize or justify it.
Then, individually, beginning with the first ones to awaken, let them get off by themselves and drop to their knees in contrition and repentance.
Then, as God leads, they should share their concern with their fellows, the other leaders who have abetted the church’s decline into sin and corruption.
When the leadership has repented, let them call the church to repentance.
Let them mince no words, spare no one’s feelings, cut the enemy no slack. “We were wrong. We failed God. We are in trouble. Let us humble ourselves before Him.”
Let them not rush the process. Give the Spirit time to work. The disease-in-the-bones did not happen overnight and the church should not try to be too easy on themselves.
Then, let them “do the first works,” as the Lord told Ephesus. Start all over. Go back to the first grade. Learn to love Him and love each other. Learn to read His word and to trust it. Learn to obey Him, no matter the cost.