“You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).
On Halloween lots of lively kids pretend to be dead. Many dress up like skeletons, ghosts, or goblins. Others get more graphic. They wear a mask of a murder victim, with a fake hatchet sticking out of its head and oozing fake blood, or they find some other hideous way to look dead.
When they’re done trick-or-treating, they may sit down with some friends to watch a scary movie. Many horror fans enjoy movies about zombies, dead bodies that come out of their graves and cause all sorts of trouble. They’re still dead, but they are able to walk around and do things. These living dead, these zombies, stalk and kill people who are still alive, and the people they kill become zombies as well.
Zombie movies are supposed to be scary, but you know what’s a lot scarier? A zombie church. A zombie church isn’t just a movie fantasy; it’s real. Like the zombies in the movies, a zombie church doesn’t necessarily lie still: it has no true life in it, but the church is still able to do certain things and go through the motions. And like the movie zombies, a zombie church has a deadly effect: it can go after more people and turn them into zombies as well who spread death instead of life.
This doesn’t mean a zombie church will look scary or repulsive. No, it may look friendly and appealing. You see, in a zombie church, people do the opposite of what kids do on Halloween. On Halloween kids wear hideous masks which hide an attractive self; in zombie church, people wear attractive masks which hide a hideous self. On Halloween lots of lively kids pretend to be dead; in a zombie church, lots of dead people pretend to be alive.
In the Bible, Jesus addresses this problem. Speaking to a church in a city called Sardis, Jesus speaks to every zombie church and says: “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).
The zombie church may be admired by other churches. It has a name as an active, vital church. It has a fine building and a big budget. It’s always on the move. It’s bustling with programs and activities. It’s the kind of church many people want to join. It’s the kind of church the experts point to as a model for other churches to follow. Almost everyone thinks highly of this church–except the only one who really matters.
Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church, doesn’t go by outward appearances. He’s not impressed by buildings, budgets, or bodies in the seats on Sunday–not if those bodies are the living dead. Jesus doesn’t just look at how big or busy a church is; he evaluates it on whether it is pleasing to God his Father. “I know your deeds,” he says to this church. “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Why aren’t their deeds complete? Because they lack the thing that matters most: life. These people are zombies, going through religious motions without spiritual life. “You have a reputation of being alive,” says Christ, “but you are dead.”
Behind the Mask
Jesus has a word for this problem: hypocrisy. The word hypocrite comes from a word the Greeks used for actors in a drama who wore a mask. Hypocrites are people who wear masks and play a part. Often they don’t even realize they’re doing this. They are involved in lots of religious activities, and they sincerely believe they’re impressing God. Their church has a reputation for being active and lively, and they sincerely think their church is outstanding. They don’t realize there’s no spiritual life. Surface appearances are masking the deadness. Like actors in a Greek drama or like kids on Halloween, hypocrites have masks that hide what they’re really like.
Hypocrites have something else in common with Halloween. On Halloween masked trick-or-treaters demand candy and threaten to cause trouble for those who don’t give them the goodies they want. In church hypocrites demand things to suit their taste, and they cause trouble if they don’t get the goodies they want. When our churches are full of consumers demanding a gospel of soft, sweet candy instead of the living Lord, and when we focus more on what others think of our masks than what God thinks of our hearts, then we have become a zombie church, a church of the living dead.
Nothing is more sad or scary than when religious people are well-dressed corpses and the church is a beautifully maintained graveyard. Things look lovely, but there’s no vitality, no life. Jesus confronts the living dead and says, “You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
To make matters worse, the living dead often go around creating more zombies, more people who become religiously active but are spiritually dead inside. “You hypocrites,” cries Jesus. “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15). A group may be very active and successful in getting people to join it and yet be the living dead.
In North America an overwhelming majority of the people claim to believe in God and say that Jesus is God’s Son and the Bible is God’s Word. Many people attend church regularly, and even many who don’t attend often still consider themselves part of a particular group. But how many who claim to believe in Jesus are spiritually lifeless? How many churches that have a name for being alive are dead? Far too many, I’m afraid.
A prominent pollster surveyed religious beliefs and activities to find out how religion affects the way people live. The pollster summarized his findings in four words: “Religion up; morality down.” The number of people who say they believe basic Christian teachings and are involved in churches is about as high as it’s ever been, but evils such as pornography, sex outside marriage, divorce, abortion, lying, greediness, corruption in business and government, drunkenness, drug abuse, and other wickedness continue to spread, and in many cases those inside the church live as immorally as those on the outside. As Jesus once put it, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Churches may be as full as ever, but many must be churches of the living dead. How else can one explain the pollster’s conclusion, “Religion up, morality down”?
People who have the talk without the walk are sometimes called “nominal Christians,” Christians in name only. When our hearts are far from the Lord and we focus on our own desires and pleasures, then no amount of talk or religious activity can change the fact that we are spiritually dead. The Bible says that a woman “who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives” (1 Timothy 5:6), and the same as true of a man who lives for pleasure: he is a zombie, one of the living dead.
The Bible describes the living dead by saying, “People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, … lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:2-5). That’s a superb summary of what a spiritual zombie is like: an outward form or shape that seems religious but no living power within, “having a form of godliness but denying its power.”
Can the Dead Come Alive?
Now is an especially fitting time to hear what the Lord says to the church of the living dead. For many people, October 31 means Halloween. But October 31 also marks something far more important: the start of the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, the Christian church had largely become a church of the living dead. The church had political clout. The church had magnificent buildings. The church had famous scholars. The church had enormous wealth. The church had splendid clothing for clergy. The church provided rituals for countless people. But church members were not being introduced to Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord, and they were discouraged from reading the Bible in their own language. In the Reformation God brought people to the living truth of the Scriptures instead of dead traditions and led them to trust the living grace of God in Christ and not dead rituals. Many churches sprang to life, thanks to the life-giving power of God’s Holy Spirit.
The tremendous reformation and revival that began on October 31, 1517 is not the only time God has done that sort of thing. At other times, too, the church worldwide has been almost dead spiritually though seemingly strong in worldly things, and yet the Lord has not allowed things to remain that way. Christ has moved church members who really are alive to mourn and pray for the church, and then he has flooded his church with new life through a fresh, powerful visitation from his Holy Spirit. Sometimes it happens on an international scale, sometimes in a particular nation or region, sometimes in a local congregation. But on whatever scale it happens, it does indeed happen. It’s happened over and over in the past, and it can happen again. A church of the living dead can be revived by the Holy Spirit, get rid of its masks, its empty words and rituals, and become alive with the life of Christ.
When Jesus confronts a church and says, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead,” he’s not necessarily getting ready to bury it. He may be getting ready to revive it. The first step in revival is getting us to see how badly we need it. Once we see our spiritual deadness, the Lord can bring new life on a scale we never dreamed possible.
The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel saw a vision from God in which the preaching of God’s Word and the power of God’s Spirit transformed a desert valley full of dry bones into a living, breathing army for God (Ezekiel 37:1-14). That’s a great picture of what God has done in various times and places by bringing revival and new life to churches and churchgoers who were dry and dead. Today we urgently need a fresh outpouring of life from the Holy Spirit.
A Wakeup Call
In order for revival to come, we must pay attention to what the Lord Jesus Christ tells the church of the living dead. His words to an ancient church in Sardis, recorded in Revelation 3, are words that surely apply to many churches today:
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come.
Yet there are a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3:1-7).
Even in a church which is practically dead, some things may still remain that are worth strengthening and building on, and some people may still remain who still have spiritual life in them. They have a real relationship with Christ and haven’t “soiled their clothes” through wallowing in worldly ways.
If you’re a person who believes the Bible and loves Jesus and lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, but you’re part of a church of the living dead, be encouraged. You may be part of a tiny minority, your church may be a spiritual graveyard, but the Lord knows you by name and will surely save you, even if he judges your church. That assurance keeps you from giving up on the Lord and giving in to the dead, worldly religion around you.
If you have this assurance from Christ, however, it doesn’t mean you can sit back and say, “Who cares what happens to the church, as long as I belong to Christ personally?” No, although Jesus knows and saves the scattered individuals within a dead church who are still faithful to him, he often also revives and restores the church as a whole, and he often uses those who are already alive to be instruments of renewal and revival in the broader church.
The first order of business is to wake up. Even genuine, living followers of Christ can get sleepy and not notice how lifeless and unspiritual the church is becoming. They see a lot of activity and hardly notice that few people seem interested in quiet, earnest prayer. They see lots of religious books and broadcasts and music being produced and hardly notice how many authors and speakers and singers are falling into immorality and breaking up their marriages. They see the Bible still in the pews and the historic doctrinal standards still officially endorsed by the church, and they hardly notice that the Bible is no longer the supreme authority in their church and the historic doctrines are largely ignored. There are lots of activities and classes, but the focus is on the latest self-help fad, not on the living truth of the Scriptures. Wake up! Don’t sleepily assume all is well! Face the fact that your church is largely dead. Then “strengthen what remains and is about to die.”
Remembering, Repentance, and Revival
When Jesus issues this wakeup call, he makes it clear that what a zombie church needs is not some new idea or technique; instead, the church needs to remember what it first received from the Lord. The church received from Christ his Word and his Spirit. So in order for a church of the living dead to be renewed, the church needs to remember what it is to have Christ’s Word, the Bible, as our light and his Holy Spirit as our life. The Bible brings doctrinal reformation, and the Spirit brings spiritual revival. And since Word and Spirit go together and can’t be separated, doctrinal reformation and spiritual revival must also go together and not be separated.
“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard,” orders Jesus. “Obey it, and repent.” Renewal of a dead church cannot happen without recovering the light of the Bible and responding with obedience and repentance. When churches are counting on the latest human ideas and research to give them spiritual light, it’s time to change the light bulb.
A group of Christians pressing for renewal in a liberal denomination have a joke that if the church hierarchy is asked, “How many mainline church leaders does it take to change a light bulb?” they’ll answer, “We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb (or light source or non-dark resource), and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions … all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.”
In a church of the living dead, leaders may prefer vague generalities to the clear, bright truth of Scripture. But Christ calls us to remember what he has given us in the Bible, to submit ourselves to it, and to repent of all the ways we’ve wandered from the Word of God.
Now, I wish I could say that the only zombie churches are theologically liberal churches which don’t see faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation and don’t believe the Bible as the error-free, powerful Word of God. But sad to say, there are other churches of the living dead as well, churches where there is much emphasis on the Bible and on getting all the doctrinal details right but where the life of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ is almost nowhere to be found. There is such a thing as dead orthodoxy. These churches have some correct definitions and formulas, and classes and activities to teach these things, but they don’t have the divine realities these doctrines describe. It’s like having a good recipe but not any food, or a perfectly preserved corpse without any life.
Jesus may be speaking not only to a church with bad theology but also to a church with correct teaching when he says, “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” It’s possible to emphasize the Bible and be proud and smug and self-satisfied in how much you know. You may go to church each week for another interesting lesson but know nothing of sorrowing over sin or of thrilling to the life of the Holy Spirit within. You may know many stories about Jesus and have many correct beliefs about him, but your heart doesn’t throb with his love and life. In fact, you may pride yourself on not getting carried away by emotions, when the fact is that you’ve never been touched personally by the Lord and have no vital experience of his Spirit living and acting in your life. Meanwhile, your church has plenty of activities to keep you busy.
Beware of being a zombie! Let the voice of Jesus confront you with the awful possibility that despite feeling good about yourself and despite your church’s fine reputation and many activities, you and your church may be among the living dead. “Repent,” says Jesus. Repent of turning living realities into dead formulas. Remember what the church originally received from Christ: not only the Bible but also the living realities the Bible talks about. Don’t be satisfied with sound doctrine; seek the living realities the doctrines describe. Seek the living Lord Jesus Christ. Ask for his Holy Spirit to make his home in your heart and make you a person who isn’t just going through the motions but who truly is alive in Christ.
If you’ve been a spiritual zombie, one of the living dead, or if you’re a genuine Christian but have become sleepy, get rid of the mask. Face reality. Pray to the Lord and ask him to forgive your folly and fill you with his life.
What if you’re already a Bible-believing, Christ-loving, Spirit-filled Christian, but you’re in a zombie church? Well, in the first place, don’t be too quick to judge your church. There may be more life in it than you know. Jesus had complete knowledge of the zombie church in Sardis, and he could tell them that they were dead. But you don’t know your church, as well as Jesus, knows it, so don’t be too quick to pass judgment.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t pretend that all is well if it’s not, or that your church is just fine when it’s really dead and rotting away. If your church has become utterly corrupt and you can’t find other genuine Christians in it, you should find a better church.
In many cases, though, the situation may not be quite that grim. There may still be some biblical truth remaining and some people who have a living relationship with Christ. In that situation, Christ may be calling you to stay where you are, to strengthen what remains, and to seek out others in your church who also know the Lord and grieve that the church is on the verge of death. Together with like-minded believers, pray for your church and for all churches in your community and around the world. Indeed, let’s all pray that wherever we have become dead or on the point of death, God will have mercy on us, the voice of Christ may be heard, and the Holy Spirit may bring reformation and revival before it’s too late. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
Lord Jesus, wake us up. Help us to see ourselves and our churches as you see us. Help us to see beyond reputation to reality. Our masks can’t fool you; help us not to fool ourselves or one another. We are blind without the light of your Word. We are dead without the life of your Spirit. Return us to your Word, and revive us by your Spirit, we pray, that we may be holy, that your church may flourish, and that your name may be glorified in us. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.