Is it possible to experience a church environment with singing, reading Scripture, preaching, and celebrating every Sabbath, without fully experiencing the lordship of Jesus Christ?
“Really?” you say. “How could you not know the Lord Jesus?”
Jesus on the sidelines isn’t so far-fetched! Did you know that happened in the first century? The church community in Laodicea (what is Turkey today), recorded in Revelation 3, excluded Jesus from church life. He wasn’t among them; He was outside, calling and knocking on the door of the church, appealing to those inside (vv. 14-22). Oblivious to Jesus, the Laodicean church continued to exult their religious rites. “We’re rich; we have need of nothing,” they chorused.
Jesus thought otherwise. His chastening words to the Laodicean believers serve as a powerful reminder for all who are listening. They are also a caution for those of us in this era. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 22).
Today, Laodicea has become somewhat of a byword for a church culture without the lordship of Christ. The risk of complacent and misaligned religiosity is as real today as it was then if we’re not listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
A personal testimony may help illustrate this. For the better part of thirty years, I too warmed a church pew every Sabbath. Although purporting a reasonable familiarity with the Scriptures, I never really ventured any closer to personally knowing Jesus, the Lord of Scripture, with a deep, abiding relationship. I never comprehended His preeminence.
Of course, I had read about Jesus explaining that those very Scriptures were about Him (John 5:39, 40; Luke 24:27), but I didn’t relate to His call to fellowship, obedience, and discipleship — that is, until adversity struck.
As I lay in a hospital bed with C4 osteomyelitis (a bone infection in the neck vertebrae), decades of disempowerment in my faith added to deep bewilderment. In the months of recovery that followed, questions I had asked as a nine-year-old boy resurfaced and became clearer.
“How come,” I ventured so many years earlier, “the apostle Paul seemed to preach only about Christ, when the church doesn’t?” It was a telling question, and one that should weigh on our hearts today as it did mine while I attended another church.
For the answer, let’s go back in history and explore where a similar situation existed at the center of Paul’s story.
The apostle Paul grew up in the midst of religious life in Jerusalem. He was trained by Gamaliel, one of the brightest and most reasonable minds in Judaism. As a young man, however, Paul took his fervent understanding of Scripture and obedience to Judaism to new heights. He despised the new Christian movement, and, in loathing Jesus, Paul murderously pursued Christ’s followers wherever he could.
But a singular event changed Paul’s direction. After seeing Jesus in dazzling light while on the road to Damascus, Paul became a follower of Jesus within a matter of days. He embraced discipleship with the same fervor and obedience that had characterized his previous contempt for Christ.
In wrestling with the call of Jesus and in finally meeting Him, Paul experienced a reckoning he had never encountered. As Paul sat in the shadows of Damascus in Syria, the city he had earlier determined to wreak havoc in, his deep perplexity led him ultimately to faith in the Messiah. He was not unlike me, dying to myself in that hospital bed.
The only illumination of the Scriptures that Paul knew so well, that made any sense, was this Jesus. The Jesus of Scripture was simply undeniable, the call of Jesus to obedience unmistakable, the burden of Jesus’ discipleship so clear. Paul saw what he had never imagined: All those scriptures he could recite suddenly took on an elevated meaning, centering on Christ.
Today we have the legacy of Paul’s various letters to the churches so we can understand their struggles and learn from them. We also have Luke’s historical account in the book of Acts giving further insight into this new Jesus movement. We learn that the church in Laodicea, like Paul earlier, practiced a short-sighted religiosity conspicuous only by Jesus’ absence. This is what I came out of and what we must avoid, by God’s grace.
What happened to Paul’s original enthusiasm for Judaism? The apostle finally renounced it, and his love for and obedience to Christ Jesus grew. His energies and endearment for Judaism were now directed at serving his Lord. After dedicating his life in Jesus’ service, Paul eventually carried his obedience even to the point of martyrdom, in the name of his Savior.
Like Paul, we must learn that discipleship is forsaking all, renouncing our past, and following Jesus. It’s listening to His Word and living in obedience — keeping the commandments of God and the testimony of Jesus (Revelation 12:17). It’s beholding the Lord Jesus in the entirety of Scripture. It’s surrendering all and following His call. Discipleship is imitating His righteousness in our lives within the context of His faith community, the church. It’s entering into fellowship with Christ, eating the bread offered at His table. It’s drinking at the wellspring of life, the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is stepping out in faith and in prayer, in Jesus’ name, to accomplish those great things that only Jesus can do.
Mediocrity and disempowerment are not the way of Jesus’ kingdom. They don’t exist! But the call to service, obedience, and sacrifice do.
Jesus calls. He knocks. And if we’re slow to understand, He can also break our hardened hearts by inviting us into deep and enduring fellowship with Him. But we must willingly respond in faith and submission. A broken man or woman who admits their mortality and willful blindness can be rebuilt by Jesus into His own image, strength, and glory. Accepting the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ, and centering our lives around His call constitute a commitment to obedience. Jesus’ will and purpose now become preeminent in our lives, shaping us in complete conformity to His stature.
Like Paul, our allegiance must find its true home in Christ. The former Paul followed his former way of life so much that he blindly “persecuted” Jesus. The new Paul, deeply converted and committed to Christ, was credited worthy to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:36).
For all his religion and passion, the Lord probably would have rebuked Paul with nothing less than “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). Instead, the Lord Jesus sought Paul out, an act of grace that defies our human sense of justice. Did Paul deserve this divine attention? Do we deserve this grace?
Grace is who the Good Shepherd is. It’s what He does! Jesus extends this grace to you and me today. Without Him, we’re completely lost. Similar to the former Paul and those at Laodicea, a false sense of assurance and conformity to ritual is nothing more than the devil’s masquerade of conformity and religiosity.
There’s work to be done in the name of Jesus. The gifts He has given us are for His service, to the Father’s glory. Those who are blind need the healing to behold what they’ve never seen. The thirsty need the drink they’ve never tasted. The hungry don’t realize they crave the Bread of Life — all in Jesus alone.
Paul came to understand the compelling call of Jesus to attend to these needs. Thus, he spent the rest of his life dedicated to the Lord who saved him, preaching Christ and sharing the Bread of Life. Paul knew just how much he had been given and what was required of him, and lived accordingly. He fed the Word of the Lord, in Scripture and personified in Jesus, to all who would listen.
In the face of seemingly impossible odds, Jesus’ other disciples learned the same lesson. “You give them something to eat,” said Jesus to Phillip and Andrew. “Feed my sheep,” said Jesus to Peter, just beginning to understand discipleship and commission. That’s the baton of discipleship Paul also grasped.
This timeless call to servitude is also for you and me today. We must encounter and surrender to the Jesus of Scripture, who then invites us into His service for a life of discipleship that is further characterized by obedience. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” said Jesus (John 14:15).
Paul became Christ centered in word and deed, and he sought out others to do likewise. He brought every thought in obedience to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Those “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” folk (Jesus’ words in Revelation 3:17) in Laodicea who ignored Jesus’ calling and knocking were also featured in Paul’s letter to those in Colossae. Apparently these believers also suffered the same spiritual blindness.
Paul expressed his struggle in appealing to those in both Colossae and Laodicea, that they too might “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
Today the idea of obedience takes on a new vibrancy, found only in Jesus. Paul exulted in the fact that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15).
The questions that remain for us are these: How do we read Scripture? Where does our allegiance lie? Who is our Lord? Who do we live for, and serve? Are we seeking religion or a personal relationship? We need look no further than Jesus.
With our Lord and Savior at the helm and as head of the church, and with His promise of “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20), our lives now find their true place of rest, service, and obedience.