SEVEN CHURCHES Revelation 2–3
“These are the words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 2:1).Today too Jesus walks in our churches.
The seven churches.
Tradition says that John moved to Ephesus some 40 years before the Book of Revelation was written. He maintained close contact with believing communities in the seven major cities of the area to which he now transmitted Christ’s message. The seven churches were historical and symbolic congregations. Undoubtedly the issues each letter touched on were real at the time John wrote. Yet commentators through the ages have noted that these churches are also representative of churches of every place and time. It is helpful to look at each church, to see how its characteristics fit our own experience, and apply the words of commendation and corrections that John conveyed. Each letter follows a pattern. Jesus identifies Himself, assesses the church’s condition, and offers both commendation and criticism. With the criticism comes correction, and then a final promise. In the words Jesus addresses to these seven first-century churches, we can still hear Him speak to you and me.
John recorded brief messages to the seven churches of Asia: Ephesus (2:1–7), Smyrna (vv. 8–11), Pergamum (vv. 12–17), Thyatira (vv. 18–29), Sardis (3:1–6), Philadelphia (vv. 7–13), and Laodicea (vv. 14–22).
Understanding the Text
“The church in Ephesus” Rev. 2:1–7. (See DEVOTIONAL.) “The church in Smyrna” Rev. 2:8–11. Smyrna was a beautiful city of some 200,000 when John wrote. It was also the center of emperor worship, which was more a symbol of political allegiance than of religious devotion. Even so, Christians refused to perform the act, holding that Christ alone is to be honored as God. This created prejudice and persecution, and cost many not only their possessions but even imprisonment and death. But persecution only strengthened the resolve of these Christians. And from Jesus they—and we—hear words of encouragement. We may suffer loss of wealth, but we are rich in Christ. We may suffer death. But we will receive a crown of everlasting life. “The church in Pergamum” Rev. 2:12–17. Pergamum was the provincial capital of Roman Asia. It was known for its wealth, but also for shrines to gods of healing, and many made pilgrimages to the city. This active center of paganism might rightly be called a city where Satan resided! While holding fast to Christ, the believers in Pergamum were affected by their surroundings. The reference to the teaching of Balaam suggests a relaxing of moral standards in the church. While little is known of the “Nicolaitans,” the meaning of the words, “conquer the people,” suggests that the church permitted false teachers to establish some authority among them. We too live in a society where moral standards are lax. It is all too easy for us, bombarded as we are by the attitudes of the world, to relax our standards as well. Christ sternly warned Pergamum, and us, against this course. But we are also given a promise. If we refuse the sweets of the world, Christ will provide “hidden manna.” We will be fed a diet of goodness which will sustain life forever, while the moral “junk food” of this world destroys. “The church in Thyatira” Rev. 2:18–29. This city was a commercial center when John wrote. Christ’s description of Himself, with burning eyes and feet of burnished bronze, creates a setting of aura for this letter. Though the church was active and faithful in many respects, it had accepted the leadership of a woman characterized as “Jezebel.” The first Jezebel introduced idolatry and gross immorality into ancient Israel, and we must assume the name signified the Thyatiran woman who did the same. Thus what was known as “the church” was divided into faithful and corrupted segments. The apostate and the genuine still exist within Christendom. The continued existence of the apostate reflects God’s grace: He has “given her time to repent of her immorality.” But the day of grace is drawing to a close. God will surely bring judgment on Jezebel and her followers. The spirit of Jezebel still stalks the churches, and settles in wherever she can find room. Don’t expect to purge Christendom, or even your denomination, of her influence. What Jesus says to those who do not accept her teaching is, “Hold on to what you have until I come.” We who hold fast to Christ and the authentic Gospel are to concentrate on good deeds, love, faith, service, and perseverance (v. 19). In doing Christ’s will, we will find the spiritual authority we need to overcome (vv. 26–29). “The church in Sardis” Rev. 3:1–6. Sardis was a prosperous and strategic city, known for its successful defense against invaders. It was also known for burial mounds, raised like a thousand hills on the skyline some seven miles from the city. Sardis, with a reputation for vitality, was as dead spiritually as the nearby necropolis (“city of the dead”). Orthodoxy is never a substitute for spiritual life and vitality. And mere orthodoxy, like this church, receives and hears God’s Word, but does not obey it. What a challenge for us today. It’s not enough to be doctrinally correct. We must be spiritually erect. It’s not enough to know the Word. We must do it. Righteousness is not a shroud, but working clothes. If you and I should find ourselves in a dead church, let’s remember that even in Sardis there were saints dressed in white, the symbol not only of purity but of overcoming. The deader the faith of those around us, the more alive and active our faith must be. “The church in Philadelphia” Rev. 3:7–13. This city of “brotherly love” lay on a major highway, and was also a major fortress. But the district in which Philadelphia was sited was earthquake-prone. Devastating quakes had made the people fearful, so at the slightest tremor crowds rushed out from behind the city walls. The weakness of the earth beneath this city is reflected in the weakness of the church. But Christ spoke words of encouragement rather than rebuke. “I know that you have little strength,” He said, “yet you have kept My Word and not denied My name.” Jesus is never contemptuous of our weaknesses. He understands our vulnerabilities only too well. So don’t cringe from the Lord when you feel overwhelmed and ashamed. Jesus understands and praises you for what you have done rather than rail at you for what you have been unable to accomplish. Christ does even more for the weak. The letter to Philadelphia says that Jesus holds the key. He opens doors, and no one can shut them. Christ goes with us, and before us. He opens doors and keeps them open. Even those most hostile to the claims of Christ will in time be forced to acknowledge that He has loved us. And each day we will find strength in the assurance of His continuing love. “The church in Laodicea” Rev. 3:14–22. Laodicea was a wealthy city. The district around it also produced famous black wool. It was also a center for the production and distribution of “Phrygian powder,” a famed cure for eye diseases. The church at Laodicea apparently shared in the prosperity. Self-satisfied and comfortable, the Christians fit in with the rest of the population, just another of the many private clubs that characterized first-century social life. Christ’s church can thrive under persecution, and triumphantly survive all sorts of suffering. But material prosperity and social acceptability have consistently threatened the vitality of the church. When Christians fail to stand for something, they end up standing for nothing. The lukewarm church is the most pitiful church of all. Christ’s word to the lukewarm church, and the lukewarm Christian, is one of rebuke. He stands at the door and knocks, and asks us to exchange fellowship with the world for a more intimate, challenging walk with Him.
First Loves(Rev. 2:1–7)
Just now several of the comic strips I glance at in the mornings are on the topic of divorce. I don’t know how it happens, but it always seems that when one strip launches a particular theme, all the others quickly follow. At any rate, Sally Forth and Gasoline Alley both are exploring the painful loss of first loves. Not that they have any answers. But painful topics have their humor, and the cartoonists are working hard to dig it out. Actually, while the cartoonists have no answers for us, Christ’s letter to the Ephesians has a great one. It’s applicable to relationship with our spouses, and to relationship with God! And it may come as a surprise. Ephesus was the site of the great temple of Artemis, famous in all of Asia. It was to this congregation Paul addressed a letter exploring the spiritual nature of the church as the body of Christ. Now, some 40 years after Paul’s ministry, the church was commended for hard work, perseverance, and its commitment to holiness. Despite opposition this congregation has not tired of expressing a firm faith in Jesus as God’s Christ (vv. 1–3). But the church had a fault of which many of us are guilty. We keep on serving. But somehow in the struggle we lose the glowing love for Jesus that motivated us at first. It’s good to be faithful. But faithfulness is no substitute for passion. What can we do when we lose our first love? The text says, repent, and recapture it. And here’s the surprising instruction: “Do the things you did at first” (v. 5). We have the notion today that feelings and actions aren’t tied as tightly together as they really are. Are you “falling out of love” with your wife? Don’t try to change your feelings. Instead, begin to “do the things you did at first.” Bring her flowers. Call her up, just to say “Hi!” and hear her voice. Tell her how much you love her. Write her little poems or notes. The wonder is that as you do these things that express love, the emotion of love returns. It’s just the same in our relationship with God. Are you faithful, but somehow unfulfilled as a Christian? Then look back, and remember some of the things you did as a young believer, just because you wanted to and not because they were religious duties. Do them again. And watch your feelings follow.
Love shown stays alive and vital.
“God is Truth. To be true, to hate every form of falsehood, to live a brave, true, real life—that is to love God.”—F.W. Robertson