It is a strange habit, though I am often caught in its grip. Why is it, I wonder, that we find ourselves so often longing for those days of the early church? Where did we begin to confuse the descriptive with the prescriptive, using what was the church once upon a time as a guide to what the church should be in our own day? The source of this foolishness is likely more Rousseau and likely less the Bible. Rousseau was the father of the modern Romantic movement who argued that man is basically good and that it is the debilitating effects of culture that always make things worse. The more primitive we can get, the better off we will be. Buying into that template, we find the early church to be our ideal.
That, however, is not at all how the Bible presents the early church. The New Testament begins with the history of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus told to us in the Gospels. Acts gives us a history of the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ. What follows after, by and large, are sundry writings designed to correct all that was wrong in the churches of the day. Acts shows us Paul establishing churches. Romans through at least Colossians shows us Paul setting those churches straight. He wrote as well to the church at Thessalonica and, I would affirm, even to the Hebrews. Even his epistles to Timothy and Titus focus on weaknesses in the church.
It doesn’t, of course, stop with Paul. Peter deals with failures in the church. James gives some rather stern correctives to the church. John’s epistles deal with problems in the church. The Revelation to Saint John, however, ups the ante. We need to be careful to remember the nature of the calling of the apostles. Our latent distrust of those above us in authority is enough to push us toward this error. Red-letter Bibles make it worse. We tend to see, somehow, the words of Jesus as more authoritative than the words of Paul, Peter, or James. But the authority of the apostles, because it is given by Jesus Himself, is equal to the authority of Jesus Himself. When Paul asks the foolish Galatians who has bewitched them, it is the same as if Jesus Himself were asking the question.
That said, in John’s vision it is in fact Jesus Himself who speaks to the seven churches. His letters therein, not surprisingly, challenge the churches in their sins. Jesus calls them out for their failure to love Him as they ought, for their willingness to tolerate heresy, and for their lukewarm fervor for His kingdom. His chastisements, even though they are directed at churches that have long since passed away (which in itself is a potent lesson for us), sting in our own ears. Or at least they ought. If our response is merely to be concerned for them, we are fools indeed.
If we would understand all the epistles to churches in the whole of the New Testament, we must first understand the wisdom of this bit of Old Testament wisdom literature: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The churches of the first century were not models of orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right behavior). Neither, on the other hand, were they beyond the pale. Instead these churches were weak, worldly, and wishy-washy — just like us. Surely the church as a whole has ebbed and flowed over the years. But she has, from the beginning and to our own day, not only been a mixture of wheat and tares but also a body wherein even the wheat often behaves like tares. That is, our problems in the church are not merely that there are unbelievers therein, but the unbelief of the believers therein.
This, friends, ought not to discourage us. We certainly do need to remember God’s judgment as we face up to the bold preaching against our sins that we find in the epistles in the New Testament. But we must likewise remember how these letters begin and end. These are not letters of divorce. They instead implore the churches to repent, to return, and to believe. Paul writes to the saints he loves, not the sinners he is finished with. He begins his letters with love and ends them in the same way. The book of Revelation is much the same. The whole purpose was to encourage the saints to righteousness in a context of hardship. The whole purpose was to remind the saints of their first calling — to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Were we wise we would hear these prophetic utterances as addressed to us. Indeed, were we wise we would welcome the same from our own pastors and elders. We would know that as our sins are challenged from the pulpit, they are challenged that we might grow in grace. We would know that our pastors are piercing our hearts and rocking our consciences precisely because they love us. We would receive rebuke as we ought — as kisses from a friend. That is precisely what they are, kisses, ultimately from the friend we have in Jesus. This is love, that our Savior has not only redeemed us but that He is also daily about the business of purifying us, making us a bride without spot or blemish. It’s a painful process, but it has a glorious end.