The Primacy of the Local Church in this Age

by Rick Shrader

We premillennialists understand the two comings of Jesus Christ.  The first, as the suffering Lamb of God, has already taken place, and the second, as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is yet to take place.  There have always been those who claim that Jesus Christ has returned in some other way, or that He is alive and hiding somewhere on the earth right now.  The Scripture gives no such indication.  But did you ever wonder what would happen if Jesus Christ did come to earth, sometime between His first and second comings, and do something that the world really needed done?  What would He do?  Would the world or His own people respond?  Actually, these are not questions for which there is no answer.  The biblical fact is, Jesus Christ did come back to earth between His two comings—to a single man on a lonely island in the Mediterranean Sea!  He came briefly to this earth and appeared to the last living Apostle, John, and commanded him to write down all that was revealed to him, which he faithfully did.  The message contains specific detail of how the present age will end and what men will have to do if they are to escape the coming wrath of an Almighty God.

I might have imagined that Christ would come back to Caesar’s throne room.  He could have changed the sin and wickedness of the whole empire (the fact that Constantine claimed that this happened, and that the Roman Church is the result, is refutation enough to that supposed event).  I might have imagined an end to slavery, homosexuality and martyrdoms, and success in the evangelization of the world due to the return of Jesus to the Mediterranean world in A.D. 95.  But, no!  His appearance to John would be for a much more earth-shaking reason.  His appearance to John was for the expressed purpose of identifying, examining and charging the local churches, during this interim age of grace, to be faithful in their mighty and divine commission!  These were not large or famous churches.  The persecution that they had already endured and that was yet to come would keep them from becoming Roman Empire mega-churches.  Their mission seemed insignificant to the mighty and the wise of their day.  Their prayer meetings were deemed powerless next to the incense-burning services of the amphitheaters.  Their preaching of cross-bearing was foolishness to the freedom and carnality of the Roman world.  But Jesus Christ’s only concern was the fitness and faithfulness of these congregations.

The local churches were not without their problems.  Five out of the seven letters contain scathing rebuke for sin and error that were allowed to remain unchecked within the churches.  There was fear and doubt that their meager resources could accomplish the great task that had been given them.  It was obvious that the Lord’s promise of blessing was not to everyone who resided in the churches, but to those who would overcome and follow His Word.  Though the letters to these churches differ in significant ways, there are many common ingredients in the charges to all seven churches.

Each letter is addressed to the pastor of the church

In chapter one, John sees Christ with seven stars in His right hand.  He is told specifically, “The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (1:20).  The pastors are called “angels” because they are the messengers of God to the congregations.  Paul reminded the Galatian Christians, “And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Jesus Christ” (Gal 4:14).  Christ has the pastors in His right hand and He is about to take them for a walk through their churches.  No door will remain unlocked, no file unopened, no secret activity will be left behind closed doors.  Every letter begins with Christ addressing “the angel of the church of . . .”  and He says “I know your (second person singular) works!”

How local churches need pastors who can walk with God without fear or shame!  Martyn-Lloyd Jones said, “The preacher’s first, and most important, task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”1 R.A. Torrey said, “Many of us who are professedly orthodox ministers are practically infidels.”2 Dr. Clearwaters used to tell us students, “More of you will fail in administration than in preaching.”  But I would have to say today, more of us have failed in preaching than in administration.  We are information and administration gurus!  But have we prepared ourselves to walk with God among the candlesticks?

Each letter is signed from the Holy Spirit to the churches

At the end of each letter we read, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”  The Holy Spirit is the divine Administrator of the church.  “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom 5:5).  These small bands of believers possessed more power within their midst than the whole Roman army could muster in ten life-times.  There was no jail cell in the empire that had been able to hold an apostle when the church prayed.  He is still in the business of restraining the sin and evil of an entire world (2 Thes 2:7) as well as convicting the entire world of sin, righteousness and judgment to come (Jn 16:8).  What could be more important to these churches than the conviction and guiding of this Holy Overseerer?

The pastor has no fear of church business when the members are Spirit-filled.  The voting of the congregations that we see in the New Testament were mere expressions of the Holy Spirit’s will when the majority of Spirit-filled members voted their Spirit-led consciences.  But when the Nicolaitans were writing the curriculum (2:6, 15), and Jezebel was doing the counseling (2:20), and Balaam was scheduling Balak to hold special meetings (2:14), no marquee in the empire could promise “Revival begins next week!”  God gave us one mouth and two ears so we could “hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

Each letter has reference to the description of the resurrected Christ

Paul had written to the Corinthians, “yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more” (2 Cor 5:16).  The earthly ministry of Christ’s first coming is done.  If we want a glimpse of Christ today or in the future, we need to read Revelation chapter one.  With pieces from that picture of Christ with His head and hairs like wool, His eyes like flames of fire, His feet like burning brass and His voice like many waters, He begins each letter to the churches.  To Ephesus, who left their first love, He walks among the candlesticks; to Smyrna, who was suffering persecution unto death, He is the first and the last, who was dead and is alive; to Pergamos and Thyatira, who had not dealt with doctrinal error, He has a sharp sword and feet like brass.

On the Damascus road Paul learned that when he had persecuted the body of Christ on the earth, he had persecuted the Head in heaven.  From that we should learn that our attitude or action toward the local churches on earth is taken personally by our Head who is in heaven.  It ought to give us pause.  A.J. Gordon wrote, “A noble head, lofty-browed and intellectual, upon a deformed and stunted body is a pitiable sight.  Even so, an unsanctified church dishonours the Lord by its incongruity.  To the angels and principalities who gaze evermore upon the face of Jesus, what must be the sight of an unholy and misshapen church on earth, standing in that place of honour called ‘His body.”3

Each letter contains the words of Christ: “I know thy works”

Whether it is to the five sinning churches or to the two churches who receive no rebuke, Christ declares that He knows what they do.  The good works, labor and patience is noted even when the church had serious problems.  Service done to God never goes unnoticed.  He even took note of Cornelius’ good works before he became a believer (Acts 10:4).  But neither does God disregard the sin in the church just because there is a lot of spiritual activity going on.  Ephesus was in danger of losing their standing among the candlesticks (2:5) even though Christ knew their works, labor and patience (2:3).  Christ was ready to fight against the church at Pergamos (2:16) even though He knew their good works and that they had not denied His name (2:13).  When Christ looks at our busy churches and still says, “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee,”  we are in present danger of losing His blessing!

In the days of American revivalism, local churches found it easy to neglect the important day by day necessities of the church.  “Revivalism’s tendency toward spiritual individualism had led evangelists ‘in a great measure to neglect the church.’ But it was in life within the church that believers could find ‘the truths of the gospel that constitute the food of Christians’ that was ‘essential to their sanctification.”4 There are no important and unimportant sins within the church.

Each letter leaves room for the individual Christian to do right

To the sinning churches, Christ’s simple command is to “repent.”  It is not necessary to give God excuses and reasons why we have gone astray.  He sees every detail immediately and goes straight to the heart of the matter.  He is also ready to forgive at the moment our repentance and confession comes! (1 John 1:9).  The Holy Spirit’s invitation to each church is “He that hath an ear to hear.”  Regardless of what the rest of the church is doing, an individual believer is responsible for himself to God and always has the ability to do right.

When God was ready to throw Thyatira into a bed of fornication with Jezebel, He said, “But unto you and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan . . .” (2:24).  When Sardis was caught in her carnal showiness that lacked any spiritual depth (3:1), the Lord said, “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy” (3:4).  When God was ready to spew Laodicea out of His mouth for their lukewarmness, He gives the great invitation, “If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me” (3:20).  None of us will be able to plead individual ignorance when we stand before God.

And so . . . .

Local churches are to Christianity what families are to a nation.  When they are redefined, broken down, and lose their authority, the whole will be weakened by the parts.  When the government merely uses families to gain and keep political control, that nation is in trouble.  When denominations and movements lose sight of the primacy of the local church, and merely use them to keep control, those movements will be in trouble as well.  May we remain faithful, vigilant and undaunted in this great business of the local church on earth!

1. Quoted by Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing:  The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994) 126.
2. R.A. Torrey, How To Pray (Chicago:  Moody Press, nd)  101.
3. Quoted by J. Sidlow Baxter, Our High Calling (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1977) 91.
4. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism  (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1966) 180.