TO THE ONE WHO HAS EARS
Revelation 1:11; 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22
The gospel is never for individuals but always for a people. So it comes as no surprise to find that John’s vision is not a private ecstasy given to compensate him for his rockbound exile; it is “for the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4).
Nevertheless, there are times when it seems better to go it alone. In John’s day it was dangerous to assemble together; a private faith would have been safer. But the biblical witness consistently challenges: “It is not good for a man to be alone;” “forsake not the assembling of ourselves together,” “Bear one another’s burdens.” The life of faith is developed in a community of faith.
When John turned towards the trumpet voice, the first thing he saw was seven gold lamp-stands, “which are the seven churches.” Then, in their midst, he saw the one “like a Son of Man.”
The glorified, risen Christ tells John, “Write to the seven churches.” We would prefer to go directly from the awesome vision of Christ to the glorious ecstasies of heaven, and then on to the grand, victorious battles against the dragon and the beasts. But we can’t do it. The only way from Christ to heaven and the battles against sin is through the church, and not just one, but seven!
Both Paul and John wrote letters to seven churches. Seven churches summarize all churches. Reading the seven messages to the seven churches it is clear that these churches are not referred to in terms of their character or piety or heroism, but simply by location: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Lacodicea – seven cities located along a Roman postal circuit in what is now modern Turkey.
But a church is not just a geographic location. A church is comprised of whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ. Each of the seven churches, and every church since, is defined by the living Christ. Apart from Christ, these churches would have location but no identity.
The Ephesian church acquires identity from “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven gold lampstands”; Smyrna from “the first and the last, who was dead and lives”; Pergamos from “him who holds the sharp, two-edged sword”; Thyatira from him who has “eyes like flames of fire, and whose feet are like bronze”; Sardius from him who “has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars”; Philadelphia from “the holy and the true, who has the key of David and who opens and no one can shut, who shuts and none can open”; the Laodicean church from “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.” There is no church apart from Christ.
Each of the seven messages is different in content but has a common outline. There is, first, a positive affirmation; second, a corrective discipline; and third, a motivating promise. In two of the churches (Sardis and Lacodicea) the word of affirmation is omitted; in one (Smyrna) the course of discipline is absent. Otherwise, the three-part spiritual direction is identical in each of the churches.
Not only is there a three-part spiritual direction, there are three basic problems which the churches – then and now – faced: assimilation, persecution, and complacency.
The churches are affirmed for untiring, unflagging, and vigilant work; for brave suffering; for courageous witness; for growing and developing discipleship; and for brave steadfastness.
But five of the seven churches require reformation in one way or another. They are corrected for abandoning their first zestful love of Christ; being indifferent to heretical teaching; being tolerant of immorality; being apathetic; letting luxurious riches substitute for life in the Spirit. They were going through religious motions only 50 years after they were born.
The third element of spiritual direction is a promise for “him who conquers.” Eternal life is presented under a variety of images: tree of life, crown of life, white stone, morning star, white garments, a pillar in the temple, and eating and ruling with Christ.
The church is the place where we come to find out what we are doing that is right; it is a place of affirmation. The church is the place where we come to find out what we are doing that is wrong; it is a place for correction. The church is the place where we come to hear the promises; it is a place of motivation. No Christian community can do without any part of this message.
John neither complains of nor glorifies his churches. He accepts them as facts. The churches of Revelation show us that churches are not show places from HGTV’s “Designed To Sell” where everything is always picked up and ready for guests. They are frequently messy.
Entering a person’s house unexpectedly, we are sometimes met with a barrage of apologies. John does not apologize. Things are out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. They are not show rooms. They are living rooms, and if the persons living in them are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, hand prints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet.
For as long as Jesus insists on calling sinners and not the righteous to repentance – and there is no indication as yet that he has changed his policy in that regard – churches are going to be an embarrassment to the fastidious and an affront to the upright. John sees them simply as lampstands: they are places, locations, where the light of Christ is shown.
There is no evidence in the annals of ancient Israel or in the pages of the New Testament that churches were ever much better or much worse than they are today. A random selection of seven churches in any century, including our own, would turn up something very much like the seven churches to which John was pastor.
One phrase is repeated in each of the messages to the seven churches: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Whatever differences there are between the churches, two things are constant: the Spirit speaks, and the people listen. Listening is the common task of the church. Churches are listening posts.
Listening more than an acoustical function. Sophisticated amplification equipment does not improve listening, it only makes hearing possible. Because listening so frequently decays into mere hearing, and because there can be no church apart from listening, the last word spoken to every church is “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all reported Jesus’ parable about hearing, with its dramatic conclusion, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
And Jesus said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble. Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirty-fold, some sixty, and some a hundred” (Mark 4:13-20).
Because the divine word is primary, the way we hear is significant. The parable, with its metaphor of soil for ears, provides an ingenious tool for a self-administered hearing test: What is the quality of my hearing?
Are my ears thick with callouses, impenetrable like a heavily trafficked path?
Are my ears only superficially attentive like rocky ground in which everything germinates but nothing takes root?
Are my ears like an indiscriminate weed patch in which the noisy and repetitive take up all the space without regard for truth, quality, beauty, or fruitfulness?
Or are my ears good soil which readily receives God’s word, well-tilled to welcome deep roots, to discriminately choose God’s word and reject the lies of the world?
Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, “the medium is the message,” made the arresting observation that nature has not equipped humans with ear lids. But we compensate for nature’s oversight by developing selective listening. We are conveniently deaf to sounds that challenge our pride, or command our obedience, or interrupt our fantasies, or call attention to our lapses.