Finish What Remains

It is probably time for a personal revival.

While driving around in Africa, I noticed a number of flat concrete slabs along the road. They were foundations, but no house had ever sat on them.  Due to a shortage of money or motivation, the owners had abandoned them before any serious building took place.

Church history has seen many impressive beginnings that fizzled.  We’ve witnessed movements full of fiery zeal for mission and ministry whose spiritual life ebbed, and then the group settled for being a mainstream organization.  We’ve also seen believers on an individual scale replicate that story. In either case, something potentially glorious was left woefully incomplete.

This is where the church in Sardis went wrong, having experienced a wonderful start, but then losing its power of life, and stalling before it finished.   

We shine not only by having a magnificent beginning with the eternal life of God (even the angels were celebrating!—Luke 15:10), but by finishing with that same life.

The only hope of the church so full of quitters, and failing, weak people, is Christ, our fuel supply.

Revelation chapter 3 verse 1 says “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:  the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven Stars.

Seven is not quantitative, as though a pack of spirits were hovering around Jesus wherever He went (There is only one Holy Spirit).  Instead, seven is symbolic. Seven is the biblical number of completion. We see it in Genesis chapter 1, where seven days represent a complete creation.  We also see it later in the Old Testament, where God gave Israel seven annual feasts to keep, portraying a complete picture of worship.

The seven spirits demonstrate the completion, or totality of the life and energy of the Holy Spirit meeting the needs of the church throughout all of church history.  And the seven Stars demonstrate the fullness of the Lord’s resources to help His people navigate, no matter how dark the night.

The contemporary church never seems to run short of ideas or even money. If anything, we tend to have a deficit of spiritual life and spiritual direction—odd, because Jesus has all we need.  Yet I’ve seen folks full of enthusiasm (apparently the seven spirits), who refuse navigational help (the seven stars). They think they know the way, and have nothing to learn. Consequently, they build the wrong house on the wrong lot.

Others however, listen to everyone (the seven stars). They sketch, plan, and copy to the point of mimicking everybody else.  But they stall out because they never really had the life power to complete it (seven spirits). The completion of all Christian works specified in Scripture depend on having spiritual life and a teachable heart.

In fact, ignoring an empty tank will lead to quitting halfway, precisely the plight of Sardis.  

Jesus therefore says, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive.”

Perhaps those in Sardis had rightly earned this reputation; at one point they had been spiritually alive—their conscience sensitive, their worship rich, their intuition of God’s will sharp, and it had overflowed into works of witness to the world. But He had no interest in conversing with them about their glory days.  Typically, Jesus wishes to speak of our condition not based on how we were, but of how we are. And to these saints, He said, “You are dead.”  

The rebuke is followed by a charge in verse 2:  “Wake up” [for they had slipped into a comatose slumber], and strengthen what remains and is about to die. For I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” They had stopped somewhere along the faith journey with a palsied, feeble remainder of Christian life sitting there, a pile of building materials abandoned on a construction site, absorbing the elements and being ruined.  

Spiritual death leads to incomplete works, because it interrupts them.  As James says, “Faith apart from works is dead” (2:26).

Verse 3 says, “Remember then, what you received and heard and keep it, and repent.”  The call to remember what we received is a common apostolic theme, like in 1 Corinthians, when Paul wrote, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (15:1-2).

Of course keeping what we’ve received includes all the implications and applications it has upon our daily life—that since Christ died to sin, I am dead to it as well.  Since He rose from the dead, I am now alive to God. True repentance always orients itself in that direction.

“And If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”  For the spiritually dead, the sleepers, the Lord’s coming will not be a positive event.  The Bible warns us over and over through both parables and direct teaching about the hazards of not being prepared for His return.  

I’ve seen Bible readers actually try to circumvent these concerns by suggesting maybe those being warned aren’t saved people, but this audience has heard and has received.  Some of them would be unpleasantly surprised when He returned.  Don’t let your theology disable the cautionary words of Christ.

Verse four continues, “Yet you still have a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”  It is startling when the Lord says, “Few” because it means only a minority there paid attention to their Christian condition.  Spiritual death is a soiling factor, but these few had kept clean by finding fresh life in Christ, and were completing the works of the faith.

During my travels in Africa, I also saw partially built homes, sitting shell-like.  The concrete of their exposed interiors had in some cases weathered, telling the tale of a builder who, after investing an initial burst of labor and finances, had given up long ago.  What remained of someone’s dream was now for sale. It made me wonder which was worse: to stop right after laying a foundation, or to stop after throwing a ton of time and energy into partial construction upon it.       

At some point in our Christian lives we are all tempted to take a break and start coasting.  This negotiation comes in phases. We start by looking around at the Christians we know, the majority, seeing the little they do, and then reasoning, Do I really need to pray and read the Bible daily?  I’ll make up the shortage with what I get in church Sunday morning.  Then, Do I really need to be in church every Sunday? Couldn’t I get just as much by listening to preaching podcasts?  Eventually the podcast idea gives way to Queen’s Greatest Hits, and a garment soiled so gradually you don’t know how it happened.   Meanwhile your work of faith grinds to a halt.

Don’t pace yourself to the herd. Instead, orient yourself to the gospel you’ve heard and received.  This is the secret of the “few.”

And with it, comes the promise:

“The one who conquers [this interruption of spiritual death] will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of The Book of Life. I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels.  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (vv. 5-6). 

The book of life records those who have eternal life.  It is honorable to be listed in it, because the highest honor a human can have is to be alive with the life of God.  

Some read this promise in the converse, that if one doesn’t overcome spiritual death and gets blotted out of the book, then that means he or she was never really saved to begin with.   I have problems with this interpretation, because to be blotted out, one’s name must have been written there at some point as a person who was authentically saved. Others say if a name gets blotted out, it means a loss of salvation.  But a hundred other verses in the Bible will argue that point.

I propose a third possibility, and that is being erased may involve discipline of some type.  As to blotting out a name, I know of one situation (and there are probably many more), where a family shamed one of its members by withholding her name from their mother’s obituary.  They blotted her out.  By doing this, they were making a statement to the woman that although she was really a member of the family, she hadn’t lived like it.

1 John 2:28 says, And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” Since we have received eternal life, our normal and honorable condition is to be alive.  Anything less than that condition invites dishonor.

But far from blotting us out, the Son wants to celebrate us before the Father by confessing our names.  He wants to say to God, “Your life in Me is in him (or her). He or she not only started with your life the day they were saved, but finished with it, and have completed their works!”    

It’s always special to see our names on documents that certify completion—a diploma that says we completed an education, or a license that we’ve completed training, or a will that we’ve completed a required 18th  or 21st birthday in order to inherit a fortune.

Completion is important!  Jesus said in Luke 14:28-30,For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’”

As a young man, I heard other people being mocked for starting and then stopping their Christian walk.  That provoked me to sit down at the beginning of my faith, and think about the hardship of following Jesus.  I considered various temptations, the devil, and the pressure of disapproving family and friends.  I thought about the allure of the world, and the pleasures of sin. Most of all, I thought about my own selfishness, stubbornness, laziness, moodiness, and unpredictability. Then factoring in my age (21) and statistical longevity (75), I figured I wouldn’t be able to complete a full Christian life.

I was right.  I didn’t have what it takes.  

I’ve found that only Jesus has what we need to get to the end—seven spirits, and seven stars.  

 

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