I want to highlight that He speaks to be heard and understood. He’s not just talking. He intends that we understand what He’s saying.
December 16, 2023
Speaker: Greg Sanders
Passage: Revelation 2:1-7
I want to begin to embark on the messages to the seven churches. That’s what was heavily on our hearts when we began to look at the book of Revelation. Then, a war broke out in Israel, and it became very apparent that God, in His kindness, leads us ahead of time so we’re prepared and ready.
There are seven distinct messages to these churches. At the same time, there is some overarching communication to the churches, things that are said to all of them. Then, there are some things said uniquely. Before we dive deeply into the individual, we’re going to embark on the church of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Those are the seven churches we’ll examine.
Before we do that, I want to fixate on the one message that cascades to all of them. Let’s begin in Revelation 1:17.
It says, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the living one who died. Look, I am alive forever and ever. And I hold the keys of death and the grave. So write down what you have seen, both the things that are now happening and the things that will happen later. This is the meaning of the seven stars you saw on My right hand and the seven gold lampstands. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. And the seven lampstands are the seven churches. Write this letter to the angel of the church of Ephesus. This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the one who walks among the seven gold lampstands. I know all the things you do. I have seen your hard work and your patient endurance. I know you don’t tolerate evil people. You’ve examined the claims of those who say they are apostles, but they’re not. You have discovered they are liars. You have patiently suffered for Me without quitting. But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love Me or each other as you did at first. Look how far you have fallen from your first love. So turn back to Me, again, and work as you did at first. If you don’t, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches. But there is this about you that is good. You hate the deeds of the immoral Nicolaitans just as I do. Anyone who’s willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Everyone who’s victorious will eat from the tree of life and the paradise of God can be seen.'”
There’s so much in this word to the church of Ephesus. The first thing I love is the fact that Jesus says the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches. Anglos is the word in the Greek. It gets translated into English as “angels.” But it’s strange to consider that what He says to those angels is, if you don’t repent, I’m going to remove your influence.
Is it possible that the word “angels” was a poor translation and that there’s a better term? Because the real term for Anglos, the real definition in ancient Greek, is “a messenger.” So could it be that it’s written to the messengers or the leaders or the pastors of those churches? What he’s saying is, I hold leadership responsible first, and it cascades from there. That seems like a much more accurate definition.
I love that He talks about these lampstands. My favorite part is when He says, “I walk among them.” I don’t know about you, but I want more of that. More walking among us. Before we dig into that, I want to focus on this phrase, “Anyone who’s willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
This phrase will show up in all seven addresses. It is the single message that Jesus communicates to each church. It’s not just a greeting card. It kind of reads like that and feels systematic. We see it show up seven times and think this must be a formal address. It’s not a formal address at all. It’s an important declaration.
I want to make some observations. Anyone who is willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I want to call out a few things that I think are obvious, but need to be considered. Anyone can hear. Jesus makes a declaration that I don’t want us to miss. Anyone can hear. It doesn’t take some supernatural ability. Anyone can hear. The word used here means it’s available to anybody who wants it.
The focus of this idea is that anyone who possesses the right faculties can hear. But in this phrase, is it just a touch of wordplay? It says, “Anyone willing to hear, let them listen.” Therefore, while it’s available to anyone, it’s only possible with this ability. What is the ability? The willingness to hear. Anyone who is willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
How you hear determines what you hear. I want to draw attention to the word “willing” and assess that idea. To do that, we have to first consider John. While writing in Greek, he thinks in Hebrew because he’s a Hebrew, raised in Hebrew culture. Jesus is the origin of the Hebrew culture. We sang this morning, “Yahweh.” We believe in a Triune God, God in three persons as revealed in Scripture: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
While they are separate entities in their function, you’re not capable of disconnecting them. When we talk about Yahweh, we are talking about Jesus. He uses wording that is the way Yahweh chose to communicate because he set this culture up. It’s His way of communicating. It’s how this is spoken. To hear, or the concept of hearing as connected to Hebrew culture, is connected to Yahweh.
John, being a Hebrew writer and a Hebrew listener, would have instantly and immediately connected this to something called the Shema. The Shema shows up in Deuteronomy 6. It says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” Hearing in our culture is a mental activity. Hearing just means that our ears pick up sound. A more accurate term woudl be listening. You’re listening to me right now. Your ears are picking up the sound. It doesn’t mean you’re paying attention.
We understand in our culture that hearing, listening, and paying attention are very different things. In Hebrew, the word Shema, or “the concept of hearing,” describes the mental reality of picking up the sound by hearing, and also the effect of what was said, taking heed, being obedient, or doing what is asked. It’s a much bigger concept. It deals with an attitude. The attitude is determined in your mind before you hear that you’re going to follow through with what is said. This is the attitude that Hebrew people were taught to carry before the Lord.
For the church, Jesus declares the hearing is to be a posture for living. One where every time we hear His voice, whether it’s in scripture or prayer, we have already determined to take obedient action following what is said, following what is convicted, or following what He is impulsing.
“Willing to hear” is a two-part phrase. It says, “He who has an ear.” If we go into the New American Standard Version, it’s a little bit more accurate to the Greek. “He who has an ear” means the capacity to perceive or understand. “He who has an ear should hear” means to harken or to put into action. We take this Hebrew idea of the Shema and realize that’s what Jesus is talking about. He’s not saying, when I talk, just be quiet so your ears can hear. He’s saying, pay attention and come listen to what I say with an attitude to obey it.
I would love to submit that hearing Him — this Shema idea we are to embrace — is not a moment-to-moment decision. It is a lifestyle posture we step into. If you’re living in a place where, moment to moment, you’re deciding whether or not you’re going to listen to what the Lord says, you’ve already failed the Shema because you’ve placed yourself as God on the throne.
The Shema has this beautiful thing where we place ourselves under His authority, and we say, “When you speak, I act.” It’s not, “If you say something I like, I act.” How many are like me, and you’ve been guilty of that? I remember a moment when the Lord had given me a place to go and a job to take in the Kingdom. I remember sitting in the parking lot outside the church I was working at the time, and I said, “You know, as a son, I think I’m going to exercise my right to choose.”
Do not underestimate the amount of work He’s had to do on me. Here’s what’s terrifying. He stayed quiet. He let the results of that decision come into view. Could I submit to you that living under the Shema is a discipline of trust? I move into action when You say because I understand there are things I don’t see that You do. I don’t want to have to see them to follow them because often, by the time I see, it’s too late.
Hearing is a posture of obedience we live in every moment of every day. I don’t think it’s a stretch to understand this idea in its reciprocal value. If you’re not ready to act and obey what you hear, don’t listen. Don’t come before the Lord asking Him for advice and direction if you’re not going to listen. All you’ve done is put yourself under a curse because you’ve decided you’re too proud to follow what He says instantly. I have to resist you because I resist the proud.
I’d love to take it one step further and say if you know the Lord has already said to not be doing something or not be engaging in something you are and you’re still doing it, you are guilty of that same thing. What you’re saying is, “I know what you said, and I don’t care. I’m God, not you. Leave me alone.” It is the moment when we say, “I’m superimposing my will over yours.” It’s honestly the inverse of what Jesus says.
He says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But to walk in disobedience is to say, “Not your will, but mine be done.” The enemy loves to whisper, it’s not that big a deal. You can work on this. You can grow in this.
I would love to say that’s a lie because the truth is the moment we willingly walk disobedient to His voice, we have already committed treason and gone AWOL. It’s a violation of our activity or compliance, and obedience to His voice is paramount to hearing.
You won’t hear God if you don’t walk in obedience. It is easy to hear God say what you want Him to say when you need Him to say it. It takes the discipline of a disciple, a soldier under authority, one who’s been ransomed and redeemed to say, “You don’t have to say stuff that makes me happy for me to follow it. I follow because You said it.”
Anyone who’s willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches. I want to highlight that He speaks to be heard and understood. He’s not just talking. He intends that we understand what He’s saying.
There are two ideas or two questions that come to mind from this reality. Number one, how do you hear from Him if you don’t know His voice? How do you begin to hear from God if you’re not able to tell if it’s Him talking? If He wants to be known, He makes it obvious. Once again, you put yourself on the throne. He is God all by Himself. He’s not asking us if it’s okay for Him to be God. So for me to say, “If you want me to know, you can make it obvious.” There’s an arrogance in it. I would submit that the single most important aspect of our lives is learning to tune our ears to His voice.
Proverbs will teach that we can tune our ears to hear Him. For whatever reason, every time I hear that phrase, I think of a radio dial. When I was a kid, we had this thing, it was a knob, and you could turn it, and you would hear frequencies coming in and out. If you fine-tuned it just right, you could pick up what was going on. Could I submit that when we fine-tune our ears correctly, we hear what’s going on?
Tuning requires history and regularity with His voice. You cannot develop the ability to hear God’s voice without consistency in His presence. You see the posture is, we go sit with Him and learn to hear His voice. You may say, “I did that, and I can’t sit longer.” Babies are born, and they don’t know how to speak. They have no vocabulary. Some advance rather rapidly, and others take a long time. One of the things that those who study the development of children will say is when the environment is very talkative that a child is in, they learn how to talk. When the environment is quiet or silent, they develop more slowly.
Being around the communication of the parent is what teaches the child how to speak. Then, there’s education that comes alongside it. But could I submit to you that putting yourself in the place where He speaks helps you learn to hear what He says? You begin to develop. Maybe it starts as babbles, and you barely understand the little things that He’s saying. Then, over time, you begin to hear clearly, and over 20 years of doing that, you hear crystal clear. Then you realize, oh man, I tapped into something incredible where I can go sit with Him, and it takes five minutes to get a clear answer and move through life with this unfair advantage over everybody else.
He intends that we live in and walk with an unfair advantage because all we have to do is quiet ourselves, sit in His presence, ask Him a question, get an answer, and go. Tuning requires letting go of any demonically inspired lie that says, “I can’t hear Him.” If you have believed, “I can’t hear Him,” you need to confess and repent of it for what it is. It’s a lie. I’m happy if you say, “You know, I haven’t taken the time to learn how to hear His voice.” Own it. Sometimes, being an adult means you learn to own what’s yours.
You may say, “I haven’t taken the time to learn how to hear His voice, so I don’t know how, so it’s easier for me to believe that I can’t hear because then it gets me off the hook and justifies why I don’t hear,” but all that is is shirking responsibility. At times, we live with this bizarre mentality like, “If He wants to talk to me, He’ll just have a car crash in front of me or something.”
Why would you test the Lord like that? Instead of setting up a system where I can hear Him? Why won’t I just go do it? Tuning requires an alignment with the Scriptures. Oftentimes, we don’t hear the Lord because we have not been willing to study the very thing He gave us. It’s just so hardwired. We see it in the garden. In our DNA is this beautiful hardwiring to shirk responsibility to find places to justify.
The second question that comes to mind is, how do you understand? I think understanding is a mental application. It is the byproduct of pondering, studying, and considering what you hear.
When He speaks, we are to take notice. We are to study, to discover the depth of meaning. Then, on the other side of that, we find understanding. The rabbinical culture had a process that they would call “molding the scriptures” or “murmuring.” They would take a single verse, even a portion of a verse, and think about it all day long, and recite it back to themselves all day long and chew on it all day long, in the beautiful hope that throughout that process of the day, it would root in them, and there would be a revelation that would come to them.
Start small. “Be still and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46:10. It’s really easy. Just work through it, process through it, and watch what happens as revelation begins to unfold as you’re pondering and considering the scriptures. Watch understanding unfold.
Too often, when we hear, we assume meaning instead of studying or considering. How many have ever done that? Where you hear God’s voice, you know you heard Him, and you take off headlong into a decision. And you never actually stopped to consider what He meant? Then you get on the other side of a screw-up, and while He did say that, that was not what He meant.
How many guys that are married understand that, “I’m fine,” means a lot of different things? There’s a necessity to dig for context.
“What do you mean by, ‘I’m fine?'”
“I mean, I’m fine.”
You know what that means? Very different than, “I mean, I’m fine.” Oh, cool. Same language, different inflection. Could I submit that when the Lord speaks, we follow after Him? He doesn’t follow after us. He also has nuance and understanding, and we should probably consider things.
We have the scriptures to lead us, which is a great place to go. We have leadership coaches. Now, when I say leadership, I don’t mean the pastor of the church. I mean, you have people in your life who may have gone there before you and have been around a little longer. What a novel idea to go, “This is what I think I heard the Lord say, can you help me understand it?”
I think many of us hear what the Spirit is saying but we fail to process it. When you fail to process, mold, and consider what the Lord is saying, you dull your hearing. We must understand that this process, when done correctly, isn’t something amazing. It’s simply what He expects. He expects it because it works. He did not want an ignorant church on the earth. He wanted an informed people on the earth. Anyone who’s willing to hear should listen to the Spirit and understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
I want us to understand He is speaking to His church. It’s not an if it’s a reality. The overarching message in this is He’s speaking the original message to the leadership of the church. I want to highlight that both the leaders and the people in the church have a choice in what they listen to. If these last four years have taught us anything, it has to have taught us to be careful what we listen to.
We have to be willing to prioritize His voice as leadership over activity, over growth, over metrics over problems. I’m calling for a season in the church when we come back to a place where His voice and His heart matter more than anything else. The metrics of growth, while they’re important, don’t hold a candle to the metrics of His voice. Those systems don’t even come close.
I hope we would say, “We hold this one thing to be preeminent–we must have Him talking at all times.” I think it is a priority for all of us as the people of God to prioritize His voice over the multitude of voices in our culture. I don’t know what those voices are for each of us. There are so many of them that we would take another hour just trying to name them. I want to say this: if it isn’t Him, it’s got to go lower on the system.
That truth causes me incredible reverence, maybe even fear. He speaks to leadership, and He will hold the church as His lampstands accountable. For both how the leader responds and how they respond. This isn’t a joke thing. This is real. I think sometimes we bring a very North American interpretation to the Kingdom, where we all start to think we’re just responsible between Jesus and ourselves. It’s all independent. Church is not independent. We’re a family united by Him, and He holds us accountable as such.
I want you to consider a simple truth: what we follow or allow to move us into action is actually what we’re listening to. There are blessings and tragedies connected to how we handle His voice. Each of these messages that we’re going to read contains a promise for that church if they live into it. It’s beautiful. Most of the messages contain a declaration of loss. The church doesn’t honor what He’s saying.
I would submit that if we don’t know what He’s saying, we won’t know how to obey and walk in the blessing. The goal of this teaching is to get us to understand how to tune our ears to be the people who would say, “I am that. I will hear what the Spirit is saying, and I will follow it.” There’s an incredible reality at stake with the posture and the attitude of our hearts towards His voice. Do we have an ear to hear? Where have we let a disobedient posture enter our lives? What if we let a critical spirit enter and evaluate what He says before deciding to obey?
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