There once was a missionary effort in a Muslim country where the nationals adamantly asserted, “To be from here is to be Muslim”. The work was hard and slow as the small team scoured the region looking for anyone in whom the Spirit was moving, anyone who would believe. After years, there were a few here and a few there who had believed, but the follow up and discipleship work was poorly executed. Being secluded with a new faith and not even a Bible to read, these people were left extremely vulnerable. Shortly thereafter, Jehovah’s Witnesses came in and led these new believers astray. Years later, a new wave of missionaries came through and were surprised to find random Jehovah’s Witnesses in these remote areas, and only learned this tragic reality from their conversion stories.
Jesus taught a parable of different types of seeds that fall to the Earth. Some fall on the hard ground and the birds eat the seeds before they can take root. Some fall on rocky soil and grow up quickly, but are scorched by the sun because they are unable to take deep root amongst the rocks. Some fall in the midst of thorns and weeds and are choked out. And some fall on good soil and grow strong – producing fruit. The hard soil into which the seed does not penetrate it is one who hears the Gospel and denies it – never understands it. The rocky soil is one who hears the Gospel and receives it but has no depth of root or transformation, and when persecution and trials arise he falls away and abandons the faith. The weeds represent wealth and/or worries of the world that consume someone and his faith withers away because of his love for and focus on the world. Lastly, the good soil is one who hears the Gospel, establishes deep roots, and grows fruitfully (Matt 13).
The new believer who is deceived by a false religion like Jehovah’s Witness could be the young plant in the rocky soil or amongst the thorns. He could be deceived by the promised pleasures of a false religion, or he could be tempted to fear the consequence of not following the false religion (be it persecution or spiritual consequences). Either way, the lack of growth of the seed proves the seed to not be in the good soil. If one remains in this state, Jesus says he will not be saved eternally. We see this terrifyingly severe admonition in the fifth church Jesus addresses in His revelation to John, the Church in Sardis:
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and 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’.”
– Rev 3.1-6
The Church at Sardis had a great reputation. People from all around took note of the good things that the church was doing, and/or the numbers that they were drawing. Everyone thought Sardis was alive and thriving because of their outward success, but Jesus terrifyingly pronounces them to be dead. The Church as a whole was preforming “good deeds” in their own power, and Jesus was not a part of it. He bids them to wake up and to strengthen that small remnant within them who still had some Spiritual life, but are about to die. They are about to be choked out by the weeds or scorched by the sun.
Jesus says to the Church, “I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God”. This is not to imply that more good deeds and service will merit salvation, rather it is the truth that works must be the result of salvation and love (James 2.18). We must have good works, if we do not serve God with our strength, our minds, and our hearts, we prove ourselves to not be saved(Matt 22.37). He has created us to do good deeds (Eph 2.10). But our deeds are only completed when they are driven by a love and respect for God through our humble reception of His grace which is our salvation. This Church had heard the Gospel and twisted it so slightly that they looked extremely religious and holy to the outside world, but had neglected the inward transformation which God requires. They were white washed tombs (Matt 22.37).
Jesus affirms, however, that they had heard the true Gospel, and he implores them to remember the foundation and to repent. He warns them that if they do not repent, they will suffer eternity in Hell. The stakes here are extremely high. He again points out the fact that there are a few left in their midst who are alive, and Jesus promises to redeem them on the last day and to clothe them in white. Their sins have been covered and washed clean, and they are clothed in white which represents their purity before God by the saving work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus will be their advocate at judgment day and they will enter His rest.
This is a terrifying reality, as are all of the warnings Jesus gave to the Churches. Jesus is addressing and warning the churches – and our churches – about eternity. He is not speaking about preference, He is not speaking about our level of reward in eternity. He is speaking about Heaven and Hell. The stakes are most severe, and the consequences are of utmost importance. If we deceive ourselves and follow the actions and deeds of the church without having been transformed from the heart, we are damned to Hell. And Jesus says that churches can thrive in the eyes of the world and other Christians, yet be dead.
This is why Paul teaches us to continually be aware of the thoughts and motives of our hearts, and to be continually conscious of our salvation:
“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
– 2 Cor 13.5
While this may seem depressing and weighty, the consequence for not being diligent over our souls is eternal. Compared to eternity, our lives on Earth is a vapor, like a breath that disappears on a winter’s morning. We experience it slowly now, but in eternity we will be grieved that we did not slow down and examine our hearts.
Let us not find ourselves on judgment day to be dead. Let us nurture that baby plant, removing the weeds and digging up the rocks that might thwart our growth. Let us help our brothers and sisters in our church do the same, so that our churches will not only look good from the outside, but will be a thriving body which is recognized and honored by God.