What Does Christ Think of His People? 1
Revelation 2 and 3
Through Revelation’s second window we see one central figure, Jesus (Revelation 1:17-20), with the Holy Spirit (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), dictating letters to John, for distribution to seven churches in seven cities on the Asian mainland just east of Patmos.
These cities, of archeological interest today, often attract more attention than do the messages to the congregations that used to meet there. Those churches no longer exist, but the Church does. The Lord still says, “If anyone has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches [meaning, these churches].”
The Spirit speaks both in and through the messages. As in sermons, different individuals will be impressed in different ways and on different points by these messages. But it is what the author says that should guide our thinking. Therefore, to be fair to Jesus, impressions should result from our careful attention to the text.
Some individuals have attached greater significance to the meaning of the names2 of the seven cities than to the condition of the Christian congregations that used to meet in them. Not so with this divine author who “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father (1:5).” His letters, addressed to those whom he has saved, are not about how to be saved but how the saved should live.
Every congregation is urged to “overcome” (Gr. nikao = conquer, prevail). Overcome what?3 The context indicates practices that can sever members from the body and which ultimately would sever the body from the Head.
In fact, some congregations had inclinations, practices and needs in common. Consider the following: deeds (Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea), Nicolaitans (Ephesus, Pergamum), Jews who are of the synagogue of Satan (Smyrna, Philadelphia), sexual immorality (Pergamum, Thyatira). Repent! (Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Laodicea).
This set of letters provides no hint that each letter actually describes a particular phase of Church history. Those who emphasize historical interpretations stress the history of the Western Church and, to their discredit, include some denominational history while at the same time neglecting the history of the Eastern (Orthodox) Church. Rather, in the letters themselves, each and every recipient is urged to “hear what the Spirit says to (all) the churches.”
To the church in Ephesus* Jesus writes as the One holding the seven stars in his right hand and walking among the seven golden lampstands. Commending them for their hard work and perseverance, He says, “I know you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those claiming to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. But, I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. So, remember what it was like back then and repent and revert to your earlier ways. If not, I will remove your lampstand. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans4, which I also hate.” “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
What is the Spirit saying? Works not motivated by love are just an act.
Because love for Jesus dies in the presence of indulgent behavior (encouraged by the Nicolaitans4 in this case), indulgence is a practice that must be overcome. What, then, is the Spirit saying to you? Are you being overwhelmed by a practice that enervates your spiritual life? In the strength of the Savior, overcome it or it will overcome you.
This is not the only letter written to the church at Ephesus. Remember Paul’s letter? Why not compare the two.
To the church in Smyrna5 Jesus writes as the One who is the First and the Last, who died and returned to life. He knows their afflictions, poverty and spiritual wealth! He is aware of an emphasis by some in this congregation on racial ancestry. “Jews [but] of the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9) they are called.6 They seem to be unaware of what it means to be a true Jew: one who identifies with his brethren, one who has been sealed by God, one who has his Father’s name in his forehead.7 Christ is also aware of impending persecution involving imprisonment. “Do not be afraid. You will be tested, but if you are faithful, even to the point of death, I will give you the crown of life. … He who overcomes will not be affected by the second death.”
What is the Spirit saying? Fear enfeebles effectiveness!
“God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).” Believers in Jesus should not expect to escape persecution. And Jesus points out that when He opens the doors of the ultimate prison, death, they will step into an everlasting existence. What’s holding us back?
To the church in Pergamum8 Jesus writes as the one “who has the sharp, double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).” He is quite aware that, in spite of their living in a city run by Satan and having one of their number martyred, they were not embarrassed by their association with Jesus. Unfortunately though, their group included individuals who behaved like Balaam (Numbers 22, 23) and encouraged Nicolaitanism. Because the eating of food sacrificed to idols is not itself a spiritual problem (1 Corinthians 8), the combination of “food sacrificed to idols” with “sexual immorality” may imply that some Christians at Pergamum might have seen no wrong in participating in the holiday festivities and at the same time indulging in the sexual excitement everyone else was enjoying (cf. 1 John 5:21).9
If Jesus’ appeal to repentance was ignored He warned that the Word itself would be used as a weapon against them and their positions, as He used it in His wilderness temptations (Matt. 4).
What is the Spirit saying? Real spiritual food and a right relationship to God are preferable to satisfaction of the flesh.
To the church in Thyatira* Jesus writes as the glorified Son of God who knows their actions, motives and patience. However, it appears that patience of some Christians has turned into toleration of certain people who are clearly misleading others into immorality. Inevitable suffering can only be avoided by repentance. Those who are not involved should not let the sinful behavior of other church members be a reason (excuse?) to give up. Is that what the Spirit says to you? Besides, the quotation of Psalm 2:9 in Revelation 2:26-2710 powerfully emphasizes the future role of those who can recognize evil when they see it.
Jesus writes to the church in Sardis* as he who holds the “seven spirits of God” (John 15:26). This term possibly indicates the efficiency of the Spirit, given the diversity of the Church. Jesus also holds “the seven stars” which are said to represent the seven “angels” of the seven churches. These angels could well be heavenly messengers who have been entrusted by Christ with responsibility over the churches. They are so closely identified with the churches that the letters are addressed at the same time to both these ‘messengers’ and to their congregations.11
The condition of this church can be summarized as a sham. Unaware of their condition, the congregants are urged to awaken to what they really are: religious but not spiritual, active but not animated by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:1-3; John 3:1-8). Jesus’ words to these people who are oblivious to their spiritual condition are reminiscent of his warnings recorded in Matthew 24:36-51. Furthermore, this condition appears to be the direct result of their succumbing to the influence of “the world.” Those in Sardis who have not succumbed, and also those who overcome, will have their appropriate reward, “walking with the Lord, dressed in white, and acknowledged by Jesus before His Father and the angels.”
Is the Spirit saying to us that while we have been avoiding “the appearance of evil” we would do well to avoid the “appearance” of life! This church looked like the real thing, but it did not have the Spirit. Maybe it ran programs – even on time. Maybe it filled all the church offices. Let’s not give the impression that our organization itself represents Jesus when we, its members, are not activated by his Spirit.
Jesus writes to the church in Philadelphia12 as “he who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” Here Jesus appears in the role of a steward to whom has been delegated great authority (Isaiah 22) in a royal palace. In this role, he is available to this church marked by its patience and loyalty to the Lord. For them He has opened the door of the palace and invited them in (Ephesians 2:6; Hebrews 4:16). One day those who stress racial rather than spiritual ancestry, as in the congregation in the city of Smyrna,13 (135kms to the west) will acknowledge their mistake. This church is then invited to contemplate the future. Trials are inevitable but they will be ameliorated by trust in Jesus. Overcomers will be given a new name, based on the fact of their spiritual ancestry, and a new (permanent) address. All of this is guaranteed to such people.
The condition of the church in Laodicea14 is well-known: materially wealthy, spiritually poor. Jesus addresses them like a tried, truthful and trustworthy counsel. He can even provide the very thing they need. It appears that their real need is the entry of the Savior into their hearts. Be encouraged. It’s only the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ who would desire to dine with such people (cf. Mark 2:16). He has not changed. Not only will respondents enjoy His dining with them, they will also enjoy reigning with Him.
This is not the only letter intended for the church at Laodicea. In his letter to the church in Colosse, St. Paul expressed his interest in the church in Laodicea (Colossians 2:1; 4:13-16) with the expressed desire that the letters he had written to both churches should be exchanged.
So, why not read Paul’s letter to the Colossians? It must have applied to the Laodiceans. The reason for Paul’s rebuke lay in the fact that the church had become ritualistic and shut out the Redeemer. Jesus was outside the church. Everybody else was in there but Jesus! The result of ritualism is spiritual poverty.
In summarizing the messages to the seven churches, of what does the Savior disapprove?
- forsaking our first love for Jesus
- the practices of the Nicolaitans
- toleration of those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans
- enticing people to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols
- sexual immorality
- the toleration of self-styled prophets who entice people to sin
- a reputation for being alive, but being dead
- a pride in racial ancestry
- ignorance of one’s deficient spiritual condition
Finally, of what does the Savior approve in those whom he has saved?
- hard work, perseverance, love, faith, service
- intolerance of wicked men and imposters
- enduring hardships for his name
- doing more than was done at first
- keeping his word
- not denying his name
Considering the spiritual condition of the unrepentant as foretold in subsequent chapters of the Apocalypse, believers must take seriously all that was addressed to these seven churches.
- Every Bible commentary includes material on these chapters. This article, though not exhaustive, is one attempt to address matters that do not appear to have been addressed elsewhere.
- For interest’s sake, the meanings in the SDA Bible Dictionary are provided. (* = no meaning given)
- In this connection consider Romans 12:21; 1 John 2:13; 5:3-5.
- “Nicolaitans.” Irenaeus discusses them but adds nothing to the Apocalypse except that “they lead lives of unrestrained indulgence.” See art. Nicolaism, in Wikipedia. It seems that the assumption that they were antinomian per se has not been proved.
- Traditionally explained as meaning “myrrh,” but scholars doubt that this was the original meaning.
- “Synagogue of Satan.” An oxymoron! “Synagogue,” from two Greek words meaning “bringing together,” implies togetherness. “Satan,” from a Hebrew word which means “to cherish animosity,” implies divisiveness. Amos 3:3 (KJV): “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”
- Revelation 7:5; 14:1.
- Gr: Pergamos and Pergamon, possibly “citadel,” “acropolis”; Latin: Pergamum
- The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Rev. 2:14.
- “He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
- See The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Revelation 1:20.
- Gr. Philadelpheia, “brotherly love”
- Revelation 2:9; 7:5; 14:1.
- Gr. Laodikeia, probably “people’s court (of justice),” “people’s judgment,” or “a people adjudged.”
© 2010, Angus McPhee