A few months before coming to the United States, I caught up with a professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School who was speaking at a conference in England. He wasn’t a member of the congregation I was coming to serve, but he knew the church well. I was eager to get his impressions of the suburban Chicago church I’d soon be serving.
I asked him what he thought would be my biggest challenge, and I’ll never forget his answer: “Your greatest challenge will be knowing what to do. They already have everything.”
That was the reputation of the church in Laodicea. It was a church of relentless activity and apparent success. A remarkable confidence characterized the people, evidenced by their self-assessment: “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (Rev. 3:17). Laodicea was a congregation with a 5-star rating. Visitors who came would say, “What more could you want? They’ve got everything here.” If the pastor at Laodicea had called the congregation to a season of reflection regarding their spiritual life, the members would have said, “We are doing quite well, thank you.”
Christ Outside the Church
Yet here’s the great irony: For all its fine reputation, Jesus was standing outside the door of this dazzling church, knocking (Rev. 3:20). To me, this is one of the most extraordinary pictures in the Bible. Christ outside his own church! Jesus knocking on his own people’s door!
I know this text is often used to invite unbelievers to open their hearts to Christ. And that’s fine. But the first application is not to unbelievers, but to the church.
Think about who is knocking at the door: he’s the glorified Lord, the head of the church, which is his body and his bride. Christ loves the church and, without him, there would be no church to love. On the cross, he gave himself to bring the church into being. Now, enthroned in heaven, he directs the church in her mission, sustains her amid all the assaults of her enemies, and one day he will usher her into the joy of his presence forever.
The life of Christ centers on the church. But in Laodicea, the life of the church didn’t center on Christ. He was outside, knocking on the door.
How can Christ be outside a church? Here are three ways.
1. Christ can be outside the preaching of a church.
In the summer of 2011, I was given some weeks of study leave, which gave me the opportunity to visit a number of churches. Attending a different one each Sunday, I was struck by the number of churches in which the name of Jesus was not mentioned once in the sermon.
I heard much about marriage, family, and community. I heard a great deal about opening yourself up to other people. There were many general references to God, and plenty of quotations from the Bible. But in many of these messages, Christ was conspicuously absent. Even when the sermons were from the Bible, Christ was too often outside the preaching.
2. Christ can be outside the mission of a church.
Last year our leadership team read and discussed an excellent book by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert titled What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. You might wonder why anyone would need a book about the church’s mission. Isn’t the Great Commission clear? Yes it is.
But no matter how clear the Great Commission is, mission is widely being redefined in our time as being a blessing, or being a presence, or alleviating need—all of which can be done without even mentioning the name of Jesus.
“Go make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20) is a radically Jesus-centered mission. But many churches are redefining mission in a way that leaves Christ outside, knocking at the door.
3. Christ can be outside the fellowship of a church.
A defining mark of our day is that people desire community. We want to “do life together.” I’ve used that phrase, and you probably have too. Doing life together is good, but it’s possible to do so with Christ outside the door.
Christian fellowship goes beyond doing life together. It’s about doing life together, in Christ, with Christ, and for Christ.
The word “fellowship” literally means sharing in a common life. When Jesus lives in us, we share together in his life. Getting into a small group for fellowship is a marvelous benefit, and building supportive relationships is a huge blessing. But let’s be careful to keep Christ at the center of our fellowship. We don’t want him outside, knocking at the door.
The great challenge for the Laodicean church was the low temperature of their spiritual life. They were neither hot nor cold, but somewhere in between. Spiritual temperature rises as Christ becomes central to the whole life and ministry of a church. And that includes a church’s preaching, mission, and fellowship.