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The Autopsy of a Dead Church

Dr. Adrian Rogers

Revelation 3:1-6

 

I trust God tonight that you're listening. For here is a message from the Lord Jesus Christ to this church that existed in Asia minor so long ago, actually in Turkey, this church in Sardis that has long since been removed even from the map. There's not even a remnant of this church that's left because it died, it got away from the message and it did not listen to the warning that Jesus gave when He said he that hath ears to hear, let him hear. They had ears, but they did not hear.

 

I want you to notice by way of introduction something very interesting. Here in verse 1, the Bible speaks of the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Now, the seven stars we know are the messengers or the angels of the seven churches. He's already told us that in chapter 1. And the angel of the church is the pastor of the church. It seems to be getting worse folks. Now, we're discovering that your pastor is not only an angel, he's a star. But the seven stars are the seven messengers of the church. Now, we know what they are and it's a comfort to me to know that the Lord Jesus holds his pastors, his stars in his hands, but what are the seven spirits of God? How many Holy Spirits are there? There's only one Holy Spirit. Why then does the Bible say the seven spirits of God? Well, you know, or you ought to know by now that seven is more than a mathematical number. Seven is a symbolical number, and seven is used here not to mean that there are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven holy spirits. There's only one Holy Spirit, but seven is used here to speak of his perfection, to speak of his fullness, to speak of his plentitude, to show us that for every pastor there is enough of God's Holy Spirit. And here it speaks of the fullness of God's wonderful Spirit in the greatness and the majesty and the glory of God's Holy Spirit.

 

Now, having said that by way of introduction, there are four things I want you to notice about this church that had a name but it was dead. The first thing I want you to notice is the reputation of the church. Jesus says here in chapter 3 verse 1, “I know thy works that thou hast the name that thou livest. It was a church that was a very popular church. It was a church with a wonderful reputation. They had a big name, a good name. Had you come into Sardis and said, Say, can you tell me where to find the first church Sardis? Oh, they would have said, what a wonderful church that is. They're really doing things here in this town. And they would have directed you to the First Church of Sardis. And had it been our day there would have been a lot of eloquence in the pulpit and a lot of elegance in the pew. And they would have had a wonderful, wonderful program. Everybody would have said, My, that's the going church in this city. Why, I imagine they had committees inside committees. They probably even had a committee on committees to promote the promotions. They had a name. Oh, what a reputation they had. They had many, many things going on and everybody said, If you're looking for a live wire church, it'll be the First Church of Sardis. What a reputation they had.

 

But you know, sometimes names don't mean all that much. I heard about a little country church one time that inherited fifty thousand dollars in a will. They didn't know what to do with fifty thousand dollars. The name of that little church was Rattlesnake Ridge Baptist Church. Well, they got to deciding what they would do with that money and they decided that they would put in some colonial pews. They decided that they would cover their floors with some red carpet and they would be a steeple and four columns out front of that little country church and when they did that it looked so nice they changed the name. They couldn't call it Rattlesnake Ridge Baptist Church anymore and so they called it The First Baptist Church of Serpent Heights. Now, the name doesn't make that much difference, the name doesn't make that much difference. They had a name that they were alive and the first thing we noticed is the reputation of the church.

 

But the second thing we noticed is the rigor mortis of the church. Thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead. Now, it's sad to have everybody think that you're alive and you to believe that you're alive and yet to be dead. The sad thing is this. That the organism had become an organization and the movement had become a monument and they were dead. Now, what are the signs of death? Well, in the first place, when anything dies, when a person dies, the spirit departs, the spirit departs and that's what had happened to this church. The spirit had departed. The life of Bellevue Baptist Church, ladies and gentlemen, is the Holy Spirit of God. And when the Holy Spirit of God departs from our midst then you can write Ichabod over the door, the spirit is departed.

 

I heard Dr. Carl Bates say or at least I heard someone say that he said years ago something that shook me to my foundation. Dr. Bates made this statement in one of our Baptist meetings. He said if the Holy Spirit were to suddenly die, now, of course, you know, that's impossible, he cannot die. But if the Holy Spirit were to suddenly die, he said, most of our churches would meet next Sunday and go right on and never know the difference. Now, you think about that. I wonder if that is not true about many churches. They have a name that they live, but they are dead for the Holy Spirit has not died, but He has departed. And it's so sad to see these people going through the motions.

 

I have another pastor friend, I'll not tell you his name because it might because you might ridicule him a little bit and he's really a very fine pastor but he's a pastor of a First Baptist Church here in Tennessee and they’re on the radio and on television and you know, these people, when you're preaching on radio and television, when they're watching and listening from outside they want you to get finished on time. And so in that church they have a little system. They have three lights on the wall. They have first of all, a green light and then an amber light, and then a red light. The green light means that you have, I think five minutes, to finish the message. The amber light means that you have one minute to finish the message and the red light means you're finished.

 

And in this particular church one of our denominational workers had a little boy who had been in the nursery all of this time and for the first time in his life he got to go to big church and sit with his daddy in big church. His daddy was explaining everything to him that was happening and being a little fellow he was enamored and fascinated by those three lights—that green light and that amber light and that red light—and he asked his daddy what they meant. The daddy explained that that was a countdown for the end of the service. And when the red light came on it was time to be over, time to be finished. Well, you know what he was watching and he watched there at the end of the service and sure enough, the green light changed to amber and his heart began to beat a little faster to watch and see what would happen. However, the pastor was not even on the last point of his message. Finally, it turned to red and the pastor never even slowed up. He just kept preaching and preaching and preaching. You know what that little fellow said to his daddy? He said, Daddy, Dr. so and so's finished and he doesn't know it. Hahahahahah! Well, I think there are a lot of churches that are finished and they don't know it. I mean, the light has gone out for them and God has removed the candlestick.

 

There was the reputation of the church but there was the rigor mortis of the church. Not only does the spirit depart when you die, but as the spirit departs, the senses depart, the feeling goes. Oh, that doesn't mean that there cannot be a certain carnal, soulish feeling in a church, but that's not the feeling, the life of the church is gone. You see, there's a difference between carnal emotion and spiritual sensitivity. And oh, it's so sad, it's so terrible and I've been in some of these churches where it seems like all of the feeling is gone. You think that Hallelujahs and Amens cost a hundred dollars a piece. You just can't find them, there's just sort of a barren stillness and if you were to say something about it to them they'd say, Oh, we're dignified. They don't know the difference between dignity and rigor mortis. They're not dignified, they're dead.

 

I heard about one man who got into one of these churches and, and he had the Lord Jesus Christ in him and even in Sardis they had some there that were faithful and this man I suppose was like that, only he was a visitor And he came to the church and somehow, I don't know what it was, it certainly wasn't anything the preacher said, but he must have been thumbing through his hymnal or reading in his Bible and he got happy and he said Amen and about a hundred heads turned around and looked at him because he dared say Amen in that cultured and formal service. And after a while he said, Praise the Lord. Then he said Amen again. By that time an usher was by his side to try to cool him down a little bit. And the usher leaned in and said Sir, please be quiet, you're disturbing the worship service. Well, he said, I'm sorry, I've got religion. The usher said, You may have, but you didn't get it here. Haha, oh, dear friend, I believe the usher was right.

 

You see, when something dies, the feeling goes. You know, I just believe there's something contagious about the Holy Spirit of God. The Bible says where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  And I don't think we have to fry in fanaticism. We don't have to freeze informalism, but I believe we ought to have a burning, passionate, blazing, emotional love for the Lord Jesus Christ. I really do and God, give us some of that old- fashioned, good ole, heartfelt religion that comes from the fact that God is alive in his church and the church is alive through their God.

 

I remember hearing my good friend Dr. W. A. Criswell talk one time at a convention. And Dr. Criswell was talking about some of these dead churches. He told about how on a vacation he went into a church to visit in that church. He told how dead it was and how barren it was, and how still it was, and how there was a clammy, coldness about it all. Then he said after that it was in a resort area. He said he and his wife went to a restaurant and that restaurant was staffed with college kids and he said they had on the tables their red checkered tablecloths and the kids were dressed very brightly and the kids had big smiles on their face and they were serving and they even had a little song fest over in the corner and it was such a happy place to be. Dr. Criswell in his own way, said I went out of that restaurant so happy and just so blessed. He said they didn't give an invitation at the church and he said they didn't give an invitation at the restaurant, but if they had I would have joined the restaurant rather than the church.

 

Now, dear friends, I just pray that God will help us to have that spirit of love and that spirit of conviviality, and that good old fashion feeling that is the legacy of God. We can say too much about feeling and put too much emphasis on feeling, but I want to tell you something, friend. We can say too little about it, too. And our biggest danger is not that we have to cordon this place off with police lest by this time next week we become a group of howling fanatics. That's not our biggest problem. I know that sometimes there's some who go to excess and, and there's some who do cause disturbances by getting a little too happy in a worship service. The Holy Spirit will never draw attention to himself, but I just pray God we'll always keep our warmth. We'll always keep that sensitivity. You see, when something dies first the spirit departs and then the senses depart, and then the strength goes, the strength goes.

 

What power, what strength does a corpse have? And here was a church that had no spiritual power. Do you remember Samson? Samson wished not that the Spirit of the Lord had departed from him and he was weak of water but he did not know it. And the Bible speaks of so many today who will have a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof. And so, here was the rigor mortis of the church. And they went through the motions. Oh, there was activity, but did you know there can be activity and death at the same time. Huh? You can cut a snake's head off and he'll get more active than ever, but he's dead and he doesn't know it yet. Ha, but he's dead.

 

I was thinking about our star, our northern star, the polar star. According to the reading I was doing this week, it's thirty three light years away. That means it takes the light from the polar star thirty three years to get here. And the light that you see tonight left thirty three years ago. Now, that means that thirty three years ago that star could have burned out and disappeared and you'd still be seeing the light from that star. And I believe there are some churches that are burned out. I believe there are some churches that are dead and they're living only in the light of a brilliant past. They have a name that they live, but they're dead. And the glory of God has departed, the candlestick has been removed. Would it break your heart if that ever happened to Bellevue? Oh, dear friend, we better be careful, we better be careful. It was perhaps the name they had that caused them to die. Perhaps they got to resting in the name rather than in the Savior. “And thou hast a name,” thou hast a reputation. And so, the first thing we see is the, we see the reputation of the church. And then we see the rigor mortis of the church.

 

A little girl was asked to bring her birth certificate to school. They needed it for the records. And she brought her birth certificate and on the way it fell out of her schoolbook and she lost it, ha, and the janitor there at the school saw her crying and said, What's the matter? She'd been used to carrying excuses to school for being absent, for being late. She said, I have lost my excuse for being born. I believe there are a lot of churches that have done exactly that. They're dead and they lost their excuse for ever being born in the first place, and they cover the ground, dead, twice dead, and plucked up by the roots.

 

Now, I want you to notice a third thing about this church. I want you to notice not only the reputation of the church and the rigor mortis of the church, but I want you to notice the reformation of the church. For out Lord gave them one more opportunity to reform and to get right and back again. So, uh, begin reading now in verse 2 and let's read verses 2 and 3. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found thy works perfect before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch I will come on thee as a thief and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” Now, here our Lord tells this church what to do. This church that was dead, for the most part, but yet still in some of the church there was a spark of life. And you know, any good physician, when he sees that spark of life will, care for that spark of life, will nurture that spark of life, will hover over it, and try to restore that life. And this word here, look at it in verse 3, “be watchful,” this word here actually is a combination of two Greek words which means to chase sleep. That is, don't do anything else until you get this settled. Don't go to bed, dear friend, if you're one of those whose life is almost spiritually dead. Be watchful.

 

And He says why? Because your works are not perfect before God. Now, here when He says perfect in this particular verse, in verse 2, he's not talking about sinlessness. In the Bible if you use the word perfect to mean sinless, you'll get in a lot of trouble. For example you'll read in the Bible that Jesus, the captain of our salvation, was made perfect through suffering. Do you think He was made sinless through suffering? Hum, no. You see, the word perfect means mature, complete, followed through to its logical end and to its intended purpose. And here Jesus says to this church, I have not seen your works fulfilling the purpose, coming into maturity, doing the things that they were intended to do. For example, you pray but your prayers don't get through. You worship, but your worship goes no higher than the roof. You sing, and your music is beautiful, but God doesn't receive it. You're just entertaining one another. You give but God does not accept what you give. Your works do not fulfill their intended purpose and God says be careful, watch.

 

And then He gives a recipe, tells them to do two things. He tells them in verse 3 to remember and He tells them in verse 3 to repent. And oh, it's so good to remember. It's so good to look back and over and over again here in these messages to these seven churches our Lord tells them to remember and He tells them to repent and then He tells them to return. Go back and do the first things. The three R's of getting right with God—remember, repent, and return. I was thinking about remembering I was thinking about John Newton, who wrote that wonderful song, I call it the Baptist National Anthem, Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. You say, well, John Newton must have been a real saint. Well, at one time he was a wretch.

 

You know, I don't like folks to sing songs that are not a part of their testimony. I think that if you sing a song, it ought to be a part of your testimony. And you know, sometimes people sing songs that don't fit them, things they don't know anything about. Now, Church, you sang a song tonight, all that thrills my soul is Jesus. Now, brother, that's dangerous to sing, isn't it? Huh? You better think about it. All that thrills my soul is Jesus. I hear people sing that sometimes then next thing you do, you find them out in the back alley eating tin cans with the devil's billy goats and yet, all that thrills my soul is Jesus.

 

Well, John Newton meant this song, Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. For he was a wretch. I mean, a wretch of a wretch. He was a slave trader. He lived a wild, iniquitous life on the high seas. And finally, when his fortune changed against him, he got so low down that he became the slave of a slave. That's how low John Newton got. And one day standing on the deck of a ship that was heaving up and down, in a terrible storm, he repented of his sin, gave his heart to Jesus Christ, was saved gloriously, born again, called into the ministry. And do you know what John Newton had above the mantel of his study there in that study where he studied and prepared his sermons? He had a scripture taken from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 15 and verse 15. And this is the scripture that he looked at everyday. “And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee, therefore I command thee, therefore I command thee, this thing today.” Oh, remember who you were. That’s what God kept saying to John Newton. Remember who you were.

 

Sometimes, friends, I remember what I was and who I was. You don't know how many times when I sit upon this platform and get ready to preach, I say oh, dear God, thank you for saving me Thank you for changing the course of my life. And I remember and when I do the tears pop from my eyes, what God has done for me. Oh, how good it is to think back, how wonderful it is to remember, to remember. But not only to remember but after we remember to repent. And to repent doesn't mean merely to shed a tear. It is not to be simply broken over our sins. It is to be broken from our sins. And so, here is the of reformation of the church. And the Lord says, now, if you don't do this, I'll come on you like a thief in the night. Now, I hear people get all excited about the Lord coming as a thief in the night, but the Bible doesn't say that we're to look for Jesus as a thief. That's not my job to look for Jesus as a thief. I'm to look for Jesus as a bridegroom. Now, I couldn't get too excited tonight if I knew a thief was coming to break into my house. I mean, I'd get excited, alright, but not the way you're thinking. You see, that has not a good connotation, but a bad connotation. Do you know what the Bible says in First Thessalonians chapter 5 verse 4? “But ye brethren are not in darkness that that day should overtake you as a thief.” You see, coming as a thief in the night, he's talking about someone who is coming to break up, to steal, to judge, it's a bad picture, it has a bad connotation. What he's talking about here is judgment and how He had warned this church, how He warned this church, but they would not listen. They did not listen.

 

Now, the fourth, and final thing I want you to notice in this study as we look at it tonight, not the reputation of the church, the rigor mortis of the church, the reformation of the church, but I want you to notice the remnant in the church, the remnant in the church. For I continue to read here in verses 4 through 6. “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. He that overcometh the same shall be clothed in white raiment and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my father and before his angels. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”  Even in this church there were some who were true blue, there were some who were the faithful few. There were some who were the Master’s minority. They were in a church and I'm sure their hearts were grieved and broken that they had to be members of a dead church.

 

Actually, in the church at Sardis there were three classes of persons, the dead, the dying, and the dedicated. Now, the dying, He told them to repent, remember and repent. And to the dedicated, He had a word of encouragement for them. And a word of encouragement because first of all, they were virtuous. Notice what He says about these people. He says they're clothed in white raiment. Notice, “thou hast a few names in Sardis which have not defiled their garments. For they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”

 

I read years ago something very interesting about the little ermine. You know, the ladies like to wear ermine trimmings on their coats and on their collars and the ermine is a very small animal and quite an expensive animal to raise or to capture or whatever. And in the days when they used to hunt the little ermine, the way the hunters would do this first of all was to find the hole because the ermine burrows into the ground and lives in a hole. He has his nest down in a hole. And the hunter would find the hole and when he would find the hole that the ermine would hide in, the burrow, the hunter would take filth and mud and slime and smear it around the mouth of that hole. And then when the ermine who was being chased by the hunter would come running toward that hole, when he would see that filth and that slime he would absolutely refuse to defile his white coat. He'd turn around and face his pursuer and fight to the death but he would not defile his garments.

 

Oh, you know, we need some Christians who are like the ermines. We need some Christians who will be faithful unto death, who will not defile themselves regardless. I want to be that kind of a person. And so, our Lord speaks to this remnant and He speaks there about their virtuous life and then He speaks about their victorious life. I want you to notice how this ends and I'm almost finished here. Notice what the Lord Jesus says to these people here. These people who are the overcomers, these people who are clothed in white. He makes a wonderful promise to them. He says, “he that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my father and before His angels.” Now, you think of that. I believe that's going on right now. I believe that up in the glory that the dear Savior is confessing my name, your name, our names, to the father and saying, Father, that's my servant. I want you to see him father, I want you to behold him, I want you to see how even in the face of a dead church and in the face of those who are dying, here he is, faithful and true, a part of my minority, Father, I want you to see him.

 

But you know, one of these days we're going to heaven either by rapture or by the grave, but we're going to heaven. And you know, I just believe somehow that the Lord Jesus is going to take us one by one by the hand and lead us down that golden street and past all of those angels and right into the throne room of glory and present us to the father as His well beloved. And it'll be worth it all at that time. Thank God for these people who are the master's minority, who are faithful even unto death. Let's bow together in prayer.

 

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