Are you in a job where you have annual performance reviews? You know, where you talk about your goals and accomplishments. Mine tend to go a bit like this:
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In theory, it should be a time when you set lofty, noble aims of what you want to achieve in the coming year, and then your employer agrees to support you in your endeavour to realise these goals. But if you’re any good at doing performance reviews, in practice what you’ll do is list a few things that sound impressive, but have next to no chance of failing. So when reality takes hold toward the end of the year and you get no time to do anything, on paper you’ll still look like an achiever.
I suspect, however, that if Jesus were the one conducting our performance review, he’d be a little harder to fool. Which is exactly the unlucky position seven churches found themselves in. Back when their performance was reviewed by Jesus in the form of seven letters. Seven letters found in the book of Revelation (chapters 2-3), which we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks. Letters that give both a penetrating review of each church, and a powerful encouragement to persevere.
Background: the seven letters
But before we get stuck into the first letter this week, you’ve got to ask: how does a church get a performance review letter from Jesus anyway? I mean, we’ve never got one at my church. The closest we’ve had was a mediocre review on a “mystery worshipper” website about a fifteen years ago. So how did these letters come about?
The short answer is that John was exiled on the island of Patmos. Kind of like Tom Hanks in Castaway but without even a volleyball to keep him company. And there, he’s given a vision by God. A revelation of what’s going on behind the scenes; the spiritual reality that lies behind our material world. He’s shown how the world looks from God’s point of view. Where God is on his throne, in control of his world – and every one and every thing that opposes him is on borrowed time.
And John was told to write down what he saw, and send it to seven churches in what was known as Asia Minor. Modern day Turkey. John says:1:10-11 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”
But before we get to the main part of this vision – this revelation – Jesus dictates a letter to each of these seven churches: a performance review. Where they’re commended for some things, and rebuked for others. They’re warned of the consequences that await if they don’t listen to Jesus’ rebuke. And given an encouraging promise for those who do listen, and endure until the end.
And just as each of the churches gets to “overhear” the letters to the other six – and maybe are themselves challenged in the process – so we, here in the twenty-first century get to overhear these letters, too. We get to listen to them and think: to what extent does this describe our church? To what extent does it describe me?
Because we have quite a bit in common with what those 7 churches were going through. Maybe not the threat of physical persecution from the local synagogue, or the Roman Empire. Those belong to a different era; and there are no equivalents for most of us, in my part of the world.
But the biggest threat – at least as far as Jesus was concerned – is still one that very much applies to us: the danger of compromising our values and behaviours to match the dominant culture. The threat of growing weary of being “different”, and caving in to the subtle but relentless pressure to fit in; to be like everyone else; to join in the idolatry of our own age.
So that’s why we’re looking at these seven letters over the coming weeks. As a way of reviewing our own performance as God’s people in living up to the values and behaviours of God’s kingdom.
To think about
Each of the letters follows the same basic pattern:
- Who’s speaking: a way of describing Jesus
- What’s good: an affirmation of what the church is doing well
- What’s bad: a charge against the church for what it’s failing to do
- How to get back on track: an exhortation to repent and set things right
- A warning: of what will happen if they don’t
- A promise: of what’s in store if they do
As we prepare to hear these seven “performance reviews,” think about the performance review that Jesus might write for you – and for your church – under each of those headings.
Bible reading: to set the scene, read Revelation 1.