In these two chapters are seven letters to the seven churches. In some measure each letter has the same form. Each letter begins “To the angel of the church in ______ write: These are the words of Him who….” And there is some description of Jesus Christ drawn from chapter 1. This is followed by encouragement. In five of the seven letters there is also rebuke and in two letters there is no rebuke. Then at the end there is an individualizing of the message (To him who overcomes…….He who has an ear) So regardless of what the church does, there is individual responsibility.
To him who overcomes really could be translated to him who conquers (nikao). And the form of the conquering depends on the content of the letter. So in the first letter, it is conquering that which is condemned in the letter, drifting into a cold love. The language of eating from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God harkens back to Genesis where Adam and Eve ate from the tree they were forbidden to eat. God says, “We must banish them from the garden, lest they eat from the tree of life.” So the tree of life becomes a symbol of eternal life and in the new heaven and new earth the tree of life is to be enjoyed. So this says that even if a whole church is wiped out, the person who overcomes will enjoy the presence of God on the last day.
Christ is presented as one who walks among the lampstands and caring for his church. He knows what is going on in his churches and examines them. It is not as though God doesn’t know what is going on in your church. He holds the seven stars in his hand. Christ knows what is going on, “I know your deeds” he says. He is the one before whom there is no hidden thought or secret deed. Then he compliments them for things any person would love to hear Christ say about their church. He commends them for hard work. And the hard work they do is consistent. He speaks of perseverance in their hard work and deeds. Further, he commends them for their lack of tolerance. Oh how this flies in the face of our contemporary culture. He recognizes they cannot tolerate wicked men. This is a disciplined church. It doesn’t mean they hate everyone who disagrees with them. It means that in the church evil practice isn’t put up with. And to drive the point home, vs. 6 repeats the claim. The point being there are moral practices, that God hates. And these Christians are commended for hating them as well. So the question for us is, “What practices do you hate today in Christ’s church?” What practices does Christ hate in our churches? If he hates them shouldn’t we as well?
To be sure, this can be practiced in very unhealthy ways. I have known ministers who seem to hate everything, and use it to promote themselves. What is being talked about here, however, is a deep moral principled alignment with the mind of God, so that if God hates certain evils, then so should we. This is what the Ephesians have in their favor. They are also a discerning church. They test those who teach. Just because someone talks about Jesus, this church will not be snowed. They are commended for testing. And their perseverance is brought up again.
Then there is the rebuke. They have forsaken their first love. He calls them to repent and if they will not repent, the church will be shut down.
I am convinced that most every Christian goes through seasons of dry spells. It is part of living in a fallen world. Often God uses these times to bring greater maturity in an individual through difficult circumstances. But when this is happening to an entire church, it is far worse. This is a church that is described as doing good things without a love for the Lord. So they do things because they are Christians and they have always done them. They persevere. But Christ sees their love is gone. It is done out of some sort of grim determination. Jesus Christ calls them to repent of it. And if they won’t, the church will be closed. Real Christianity includes an element of delight in the living God. Persevering is good, but what is really needed is a kind of delight in God that wants to know Him. This is something we repent to change. We can pray with one another, encourage one another. Read. There are things we can do to fan the flame of our delight in the Lord.
Vs. 8 introduces a new church with the repeated introduction of the letter and the common closure of, “He who overcomes….” This time Christ is presented as the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. This is only one of two of the seven letters that contains nothing negative about the church. Interestingly, the two letters without rebuke are written to small yet persecuted churches. Contrast that with Ephesus which was a large church and fairly strong.
Smyrna was an early settlement by the Greeks. It is was a port city and very commercialized with many Jews in it. It was destroyed in the 6th century B.C. and rebuilt around 280 B.C. around the time of Alexander the Great. So as it is a city that died and was brought to life again, Jesus is presented as the one who died and came to life again. The church itself is facing poverty and slander and persecution likely wondering if it might die. Jesus here is the one who is sovereign. He faced persecution and he died and was raised again.
Poverty and wealth here are measured by something other than just bottom line coinage. In my time in the slums of Kabira, in Kenya, I met Christians who have nothing by Western standards, and yet they were extremely wealthy in other ways. The church in Smyrna is given the assurance that God knows where they are, and reminds them that in another sense, they are rich.
God tells them to be faithful even to the point of death in your persecution. It needs to be known that throughout the book of revelation there is an amazing interplay between God and the devil. In this fallen and broken world, the devil does things, but never do you see that God is not still on his throne. As Martin Luther says, “The devil is the devil, but he is still God’s devil.” Interesting idea here that knowing in advance that the persecution is coming can strengthen people. This has happened over and over throughout history. When missionaries flee a country, the remaining Christian nationals know that persecution is coming. So what about us? Might we be persecuted? If it comes, what is needed is strengthening to persevere under persecution.
There is a choice to be made between the life that the world gives and the life that God offers. Faithfulness to the world brings life now, and faithfulness to God brings life to come. There is then an appreciation of life eternal that we would all do well to ask if it is in our churches. For an eternal perspective marks true spirituality throughout the book of Revelation. There is no sense of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good, but rather just the opposite seems to be true. This is a choice every believer faces. So overcoming here means faithfully persevering even if it is costly. The difficult thing here is that the reward for overcoming doesn’t mean that you don’t die. It means that you don’t die the second death, which of course is the only one that really matters when one has an eternal view in mind.
Pergamum was a government town that at one time was a center of power. Here Christians also face persecution to the point that at least one has been put to death. The Christians in Pergamum are commended for remaining true to God’s name. This then seems to be a remarkable church with members who are willing to persevere even to the point of death. Yet, even so, Jesus has some things against them. The church has not been disciplined in what it allows in the realm of teaching.
They have people who hold to the teaching of Balaam. If you remember Balaam from the Old Testament, Balaam was hired by Balak to curse the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings so they wouldn’t take over the land. God warns Balaam, but Balaam goes. Balaam seeks God, and gives nothing but praise. Balak offers more, but Balaam doesn’t ever overtly curse them, but he councils Balak to be friendly to them and to send in women and mix up the worship. Here then, there is some segment of the church openly advocating less discipline in the church and much more compromise with teaching from the outside until eventually the wrath of God threatens the whole church. From a practical standpoint today, there can be steadfastness to orthodoxy that becomes an angry fundamentalism. Where churches run around denouncing everything. By the same token, there can be, in the name of love, to be so squishy in our commitment to what the Bible actually says about truth and salvation that we can end up with people who are actually corrupting the church. Pergamum is being condemned for this. The Corinthian church is condemned for this. II John sees this. The church is responsible for holding its teaching to biblical faithfulness.
There are Nicolaitins there, the same who were hated in the Ephesus. Now this does not mean that the church ought to open up a wave of persecution, rather they are in trouble for allowing the practice in church as church. The church lacks discipline when it comes to teaching. The overcoming here is continuing in the good that is being done and getting rid of the lack of discipline in doctrine.
This church is doing very well. They have deeds, love and faith! They are even doing more than what they did at first and persevering at it. Yet Jesus has a rebuke for this church as well. It helps to know who Jezebel was. She hated Elijah and tried to have him killed more than once. She was completely committed to bringing in idolatry into the covenant community of God. In Thyatira, there is one claiming to be a prophetess and leading people into idolatry. It is possible that the adultery is literal, because there were fertility temples at this time. It is more probable that it is referring to spiritual adultery, which is all over the Old Testament. There is a sense that we have very much lost today and that is a sense of horror over the evil of breaking fidelity to God. It seems like there is a prophetess that calls the teachings are deep, but John calls them Satan’s secrets.
How often does this happen in the church today? What are the ‘deep-teachings’ that really are Satan’s secrets? The best way to get this right is to read the Bible so often that our minds are steeped in such a way that we think God’s thoughts after Him. Sadly our culture is becoming more a-literate when it comes to our Bible reading.
Each of the remaining churches follows the same pattern of “To the angel of the church in Sardis write…..” Concluding with, “To him who overcomes…..” Each church is given some sort of commendation as well as a rebuke, except Laodicea which receives all rebuke and Philadelphia which receives all commendation. Ultimately the picture painted is one of Christ ruling over the church with blessing and the power to remove the lampstand of any church.
If you travel to Ephesus today in Turkey, you will find that there is no longer a church there. In fact there isn’t much of anything, and it is a bleak picture demonstrating that even though the church there once thrived, its candle has been snuffed out by the Lord of the Church.
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Revelation 2 & 3 Commentary