Let the Word Speak!

Opening: Chapters 1-3

Opening

The opening to the Book of Revelation has four distinct sections:

  • Prologue – 1:1 through 1:3
  • Greetings from John – 1:4 through 1:8
  • Situation of John – 1:9 through 1:20
  • Greetings from Christ – 2:1 through 3:22, with messages for the seven churches

In particular, the first chapter sets the stage for the rest of the book. It is heavily loaded with themes and images because it establishes the essence of the rest of the book up front. While this is poor form in writing a symphony, it is excellent form for a speech writer, “tell you what I will tell you, then tell you, then tell you what I told you.” As a result, we will spend quite a bit of time on the first chapter to firmly establish our understanding of these key themes.

Prologue (1:1 – 1:3)

1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

John considered this letter to be so crucial that he wrote a prologue to it to set the stage. This grabs attention in that this appears before the “address” – kind of like us writing a special note on the outside of an envelope.

The first words declare this to be a Revelation, or an Apocalypse, directly from Jesus Christ. The word Apocalypse is two Greek words meaning “away from” and “veiling”, or a revealing, which in first century Christian usage came to mean God’s revealing of a specific action for the recipient to take. Example: in Galatians 2:2, Paul says God revealed that he was to go up to Jerusalem and declare his calling to go to the Gentiles.

Note that John doesn’t consider this to be distant future, instead this is “what must soon take place.” This is the opening statement to the ongoing theme that Christians should live their lives in constant preparedness for Christ’s coming.

Verse 3 gives blessing to the “reader,” an official position in the early church who played a central part in worship; and to the hearer and keeper – joined actions – of the Word. This is the first of seven “blesseds” (a number meaning balance, completeness) in Revelation, including 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:7 (which ends the vision section), and 22:14 (in the benediction section).

Greetings from John (1:4 – 1:8)

4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
6 And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
7 Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Now we get into a traditional letter opening, like we see in Paul’s letters. Letters started by stating the writer, stating the recipient, and offering a blessing to the recipient.

Note the recipients are “the” seven churches in Asia Minor. There were more than this – a quick study of Acts also shows churches in Colossae, Troas, and Miletus. Why these seven?
(a) In a practical sense, these seven were geographically chosen so that all the other churches of the region were within walking distance of one, so all could get the letter. The order of the churches appears to be pragmatic – a messenger carrying the letter could land at Ephesus and travel in order to the churches without backtracking or crossing over mountain ranges.
(b) In a symbolic sense, the choice of seven (again meaning completeness) underscores that this message was for all the churches, not just those selected and not just those in Asia Minor.
(c) In an instructive sense, John was very familiar with the specific problems in these specific churches, and this provided him the breadth to write a universal message. Example: the harshest criticism in chapters 2 and 3 goes to the church in Laodicea, which geographically could have just as easily been written to Colossae or Hierapolis.

John gives a blessing for Grace, the undeserved gift of God, and Peace, the harmony restored between God and man. Those two words alone speak the story of God’s love.

”From him who is and who was and who is to come” was crafted with far more meaning than it appears in our translations today. First, it parallels a common Greek truism: Zeus een, Zeus esti, Zeus essetai, referring to the ancient Greek god Zeus.

However, John isn’t about to let a reference to God coexist in such company. He first violates a rule of Greek grammar in the choice of a stronger pronoun, literally “from he who is,” and continues stronger in the second phrase, “from the he who was.” John was faced with a problem in essetai, for the same word meant “will be” and “will become.” John instead used a present tense verb in a future tense setting with the same strong pronoun – an impossible and difficult grammar, “the coming he.” In no way was John, in writing to his audience, going to portray God as changing over time – God was the eternal “I AM” Yahweh, and John would “break” Greek syntax to say so!

The reference to the trinity here is odd – we get the Godhead, we get the Christ, but we also get the seven spirits. The concept of the trinity was well established decades before this letter, so we believe John was being figurative and descriptive, rather than challenging our concept of the Holy Spirit. There are several references that this reference calls to bear:
(a) Jewish thought had seven archangels surrounding the throne, calling to mind the images that John would soon share.
(b) The sevenfold gifts of the Spirit were known as wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of God.
(c) The third reference, similar to other writings of the time, was the image of “shares” of the Spirit given to the seven churches, giving a sense of intimacy of God to the readers.

Note the three titles given to Jesus: the faithful witness (resonates with the Gospel of John), the first-born of the dead (equates to birthright), and the ruler of Kings (from Psalm 89:27, a clear reference to the Messiah.) This image of a ruler calls to mind a tremendous contrast between Jesus and earthly rulers. It’s difficult to imagine an early king “loving” his subjects – instead, as in elections and in the song from “Evita,” we are called to love the rulers. Jesus our Lord, in contrast, loves each one of us.

”To Him who loves us (present tense) and freed us (past tense) from our sins by (or at the cost of) His blood.” While later passages in Revelation, like chapter 7, speak of washing in the blood of the Lamb, the best Greek texts here describe the incredible price He paid for us. The Greek verb “to wash” – louein – and “to set free” – luein – sound the same, so differences see in the translation of this verse are easy to understand.

Verse 6, “made us to be a kingdom, priests” is a clear reference to both Exodus 19:6, in the original calling of the nation of Israel, and Isaiah 61:6, in the foretelling of the Messiah. Likewise, verse 7 and much that follows contains repeated references back to the Old Testament. John portrayed in these quotes a credibility and weight to his writings and a message of the unfailing presence and faithfulness of God through centuries.

The image of Jesus coming down in the clouds is also found in the apocryphal Mark 13, where Jesus tells his disciples of the tribulations to come. In that passage, he talks about difficulties and strife, and he warns the disciples not to be misled, not to fall into the trap of chasing after false teachings. Instead, we are to keep doing what he has called us to do, until we see the only true sign that the end has arrived which is that Christ is seen by all descending from Heaven to earth. Here, John reminds his audience of that message from Jesus and the sign of the start of the new age.

Verse 7 closes with a repeated exclamation, made more so by the repetition. The first, nai in Greek, means “Yes, indeed!” The second, amen in Hebrew, for “so let it be.”

To give these statements more emphasis, God Himself repeats the key points in verse 8, in being the first and last, in repeating the same “was/is/to come” grammar from verse 4, and in using the Greek word pantokrator, or Almighty. This last word was a translation of the Hebrew word found in Amos 9:5, where God promises punishment to all who defy Him no matter where they try to hide, and Hosea 12:5, as a challenge to the tribe of Ephraim, who “herds the wind” without consistency or purpose. This word, meaning “the one who has dominion over all things,” is a direct attack on the dominion of Rome, giving comfort and joy to believers and fear and terror to unbelievers.

Situation of John (1:9 – 1:20)

9 I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
11 Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.

John is compelled to set the stage for his reader in how he came to be given this Revelation. His purpose in doing so is to emphasize his similarity with their circumstances to give glory to God and to encourage the recipients to accept this Revelation with him.

John describes sharing in the persecution (literally, “pressure”), looking to the kingdom, which would only be achieved through the steadfast, conquering endurance coming from Jesus.

Let me comment on the isle of Patmos. It was located 40 miles off the coast of Asia Minor, relatively close to the churches John served. Tradition identifies a cave in a cliff overlooking the sea where John wrote the book of Revelation. The word for the sea, thalassa, occurs 25 times in Revelation, so much that the commentator Strahan writes that Revelation is full of “the sights and sounds of the infinite sea.” Most tourists find the views and sounds to be enchanting, but for John, sitting in his cave, the sea was a reminder of the separation he had from the churches he loved.

Verse 10 contains the first reference in the scriptures to the “Lord’s Day,” which, given other period writings, clearly indicates Sunday, the day of worship. The early Christian church had grown to celebrate the weekly anniversary of the Resurrection with Holy Communion. There’s an added twist – the region of Asia Minor, in response to emperor worship, had designated a day of the month and a day of the week as “Emperor’s Day,” so the Christian church responded with the “Lord’s Day.”

John was “in the spirit,” a parallel to Ezekiel 3:12, what most commentators take as a state of ecstasy that carried him out of space and time to eternity. He heard a trumpet blast, a parallel with Exodus and with other new testament writings, notable in the volume and clarity of sound – there would be no problem hearing the words of Jesus, or the command to write down this vision and send it to the seven churches listed by name.

12 And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
13 And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
16 And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
17 And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
19 Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
20 The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.

Here is the first of the fantastic visions. These word pictures clearly seek to describe something that is too fantastic and emotional to describe, and too important and vital to be left to a single image. Bruce Metzger writes, “the description does not mean what it says; it means what it means.” Some commentators wisely distinguish between taking this “literally,” believing what is written, and “literalistically,” devoid of any poetry or imagination.

John chooses images emotionally loaded with references to scripture and the culture that had developed in the Christian church:

The seven golden lamp stands: (a) refer to the seven lamps on the candlestick of pure gold in the Tabernacle as the Israelites traveled to the Promised Land, (b) refer to the candlesticks of gold in Solomon’s Temple, (c) refer to the vision inZechariah 4:2, who saw a candlestick of all gold, with a bowl on top and seven lamps on it. Note the message of consistency in who God is, and the reminder of the relevance of God’s word through the ages in finding God’s personal messages to us.

Like a son of man: First a diversion into Greek – the phrase “like a” is weak to us, so NRSV translates it “like the,” but that confuses the meaning since this obviously is the Son of Man speaking. This weakness in use of articles doesn’t hold in Greek, where by omitting the word “the,” the reference of a visual image that is more than man encourages the reader to conclude that this is Jesus standing among the lamp stands.

Clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash: Three similar images to this garb come from the Old Testament, all of which emphasize a different portion of the character of Jesus: (a) identical garb to the High Priest described in Exodus 28, (b) similar to garb of the Hebrew kings, (c) Daniel 10:5 describes the messenger from God bringing the Truth dressed in this fashion. In this one image, we have Jesus as Prophet (message from God), Priest (representing us to God), and King.

The description of the Risen Christ is even more fantastic, impossible to picture, but full of significant references from history and for the rest of the book.

First, the descriptions in 1:14-18 match the descriptions included in the introductions to the churches. Example: Ephesus in 2:1 – “the seven stars”; Smyrna in 2:8 – “the first and last.” This repetition and artful construction ties the message together in ways we can miss when reading it in pieces. This careful structure also shows an immense effort that went into the careful crafting of this book.

Second, these descriptions were used in the Old Testament to describe God, ultimate praise and identity that John gives to Jesus Christ; for example:

  • Daniel 7:9 says the Ancient of Days had hair as white as wool, like snow
  • Ezekiel 43:2 says the voice of God was like the sound of many waters
  • In Job 38:31, God asks Job if he can bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion.

Third, these terms speak of images in themselves:

  • Head and hair white as snow speaks of great age and timelessness
  • White as snow speaks of divine purity
  • Eyes like a flame of fire, refining out the impurities to see the truth
  • Feet of shining brass, showing speed in the shining rays and strength in the brass
  • The sound of many waters, representing a breadth of sounds from softest to loudest, highest to lowest, and from all directions at once
  • Holding seven stars in his right hand, representing strength and dominion, but it was also this right hand that tenderly soothed the frightened John in verse 17
  • Out of his mouth a two-edged sword (a short, highly effective weapon for hand-to-hand combat), a reference found also in Isaiah and in Hebrews, representing cutting away falseness and sin, leading to pardon and restoration. This was particularly significant to the early Christians as key to their pacifist beliefs – their answer to the Roman sword was not passivity, but the Word of God
  • Face glowing with the sun’s full strength, certainly not human, but referencing the glow of Moses’ face from seeing God on Mount Sinai, and the glow on Jesus’ face at the Transfiguration.

By the way, we don’t really know what the metal chalkolibanos was, the word describing Jesus’ feet. It is usually translated as “brass”, but some old writings point to a mythical metal alloy of copper, gold, and silver that was more precious than any alone.

What was John’s response? To prostrate himself before the great God in awe, reverence, shame, and fear. What was Jesus’ response to John? To tenderly calm and assure him with reminders of the permanence and steadfastness of Himself, and of the ultimate victory to come, and to charge him with the task of writing and sharing this Vision.

Note that Jesus describes himself in v. 17-18 by a set of three descriptions, with the number three having significance as a sign of divinity. Notice, also, that a set of three commands appears in v. 19, describing what John is to write, underscoring that the message is Divine.

The reference to the “Keys of Hades” is the root of the dogma that Jesus descended into Hell to conquered it after his crucifixion and before his resurrection. However, John used “Hades,” which is often translated “the grave,” not the word “Gehenna,” which more closely fits with our concept of “Hell.” Personally, this consideration of what Jesus did between Good Friday and Easter Sunday fails my “so what” test – my faith is no different however Death and Hell are conquered.

Verse 20 uses an interesting term, musterion, which we translate as “mystery,” but that means something different than an otherwise impenetrable secret given by God to His Elect. The word is found also in Matthew 13:11, as Jesus explains his use of parables by assuring the disciples that “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” John is clearly giving us more here than a “decoder ring” to figure out the imagery – John is telling us to pay attention to the deep truth in this passage.

The seven churches are represented by the candlesticks. We as a church are not the light, that is from Jesus. We are the vessels of the light, to hold it up and give ourselves so that the light shines. We are also reassured that Jesus walks among the candlesticks, trimming wicks and helping us to shine.

We have more trouble with “the seven stars are the seven angels of the churches.” Some prefer to use this Greek word aggelos to mean messenger, either the person to carry the letter to the churches, or the church bishops that give the message to the congregations. This provides a vivid picture of God’s care towards his followers – while he sharply criticizes some churches, he still shows his abiding love and holds them in his right hand. Now, this usage of the word aggelos is perfectly acceptable Greek, but John consistently uses aggelos everywhere else in Revelation to mean angels, the heavenly beings.

John earlier in the chapter referred to seven Spirits, but in that context, he was referring to a part of the trinity, the Holy Spirit.

This phrase can be taken literally, that each church has a “guardian angel” that for these seven churches is represented by the stars. However, since the sections in chapters 2 and 3 are addressed to the angels of the churches, we have Jesus chastising angels for doing wrong, an idea of angelic “right and wrong” that clashes with the descriptions of angels as God’s faithful servants elsewhere in the Bible.

Another possibility is to draw on both Greek and Jewish thought that everything on earth had a heavenly counterpart or equivalent. In this loose interpretation, the perfect image of the churches, represented by the stars, serves as a reminder to the churches of the perfection that they should strive to attain.

Letters to the Churches (Chapters 2 and 3)

The messages to the seven churches are authored by the Son of Man, as He stands in the midst of the candlesticks that represent these churches. He has different words for each church, praising them for different strengths, exhorting them to improve on their specific weaknesses, and offering to each different blessings.

The form of each of these seven sections is the same, an abbreviated letter form. First, the letter is addressed to “the angel (or messenger) of” a specific church, from the Son of Man, but with a different description of Himself each time. With the exception of the letter to the church at Laodicea, each of these descriptions are part of chapter 1’s description of the Son of Man. Following is the body of the letter, usually with both praise and criticism. Towards the end of each letter is a reminder to everyone to hear what the Spirit is saying – “he who has an ear, let him hear.” This is an old tradition, carrying back to Deuteronomy 6:4, where it emphasizes the importance of that Word from God, and in Mark 4:9, when Jesus uses this phrase with the parable of the sower – the one that was so figurative that his disciples later had to ask him to explain it. Also at the closing is a blessing specific to that particular church. In good literary form, these blessings are repeated at the end of Revelation, starting at chapter 19.

Notice what Marva Dawn refers to as a recurring “dialectic” in these charges to the churches. One church is praised for it’s pursuit of truth, but criticized for a lack of love, while another has just the opposite situation. Both churches wrestle with the contradiction of trying to do both, trying to strike a good balance. She points out the parallel with the person of Jesus Christ, who was both man and God. Many heresies in the early church were groups who considered Jesus as more man than God or more God than man.

The “Crossing” Form

There is an interesting and purposeful pattern to these letters – the 1st and 7th churches are in grave danger, the 2nd and 6th churches receive only praise, and the 3rd, 4th, and 5th churches are in between. Robert Wall identifies this as an ancient Greek form called a chiasmus, or “crossing,” in which the form emphasizes the middle items. This form would have been familiar to the listeners, and John uses this form elsewhere in the Book of Revelation to place an emphasis. By ordering the letters this way, John’s is reminding all churches that most of them are just getting along, too held down by little things to truly excel.

Those that interpret Revelation as a foretelling of history view the seven churches as figurative, representing the church through the ages. Ephesus represents the early church. The next to last church, Philadelphia, would represent the strength of the church in the 1950s and 1960s, and the last church, Laodicea, represents the decline of the church, with the message being that the second coming must be soon.

There are several problems with this theory. First, it assumes a modern “linear” interpretation, based on our way of thinking of history, instead of the more normal “crossing” form that would have been understood in the first century. Also, the messages to the known churches are too similar to our knowledge of the status of those churches for this to have been merely figurative, so the foreteller must admit that the text works both for the historical church and for the future church. It is also takes a very limited, ethno-centric view to describe “the church” at a given time period for this to work. As just one example, the descriptions of Ephesus do not fit “the church” in the time of Paul’s missionary journeys. The message of affliction of the Smyrna church fit with some churches during the persecutions of Nero, but not all – some churches “sold out.” Even the “good old days” of the 1950s may have been like Philadelphia in the American South, but certainly not in the rest of the world – churches in Cuba were fiercely persecuted, the Russian Orthodox church struggled to coexist with the Soviets, and churches in South Korea waited to have their “golden age” until the 1980s.

We will study each of the churches as we go through chapters 2 and 3, and then compare these letters to better understand the balances that God calls us to achieve.

Revelation 2:1-7 – Ephesus

Background:

Ephesus was the greatest city in Asia, called “the Light of Asia,” the “Vanity Fair” of Asia. It had the best harbor, the best road system leading out from the city, so it was the central trading center of the region. It had been given status as a “free city” under Rome, which meant that it was self-governing and no Roman troops stationed there.

It was the center of worship for Artemis, or “Diana of the Ephesians,” a fertility goddess predating Greek and Roman mythology, and as such was a center of pagan religion and superstition. People came from around the world to buy amulets and charms of the “Ephesian Letters.”

The city had a reputation for crime and immorality, fueled by the Temple of Artemis. Any criminal who was inside the Temple could not be arrested. The Temple hired hundreds of priestesses / prostitutes. Hericlitus was known as the “weeping philosopher” because he said that no one could live in Ephesus without weeping for its immorality.

At the same time, it had a strong and dynamic Christian community. Paul spent more time in Ephesus than in any other church. Timothy was that church’s first bishop. The church was home base to Aquilla, Priscilla, and Apollos. John was the leading figure there in later days, and tradition has it that he brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Ephesus where she died and was buried.

Character of Christ:

1 Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks;

The Greek text indicates that Jesus safely holds the entirety of the seven stars – the whole, undivided church – in his right hand of power and authority. Jesus constantly walks among the churches, always near.

There is also an equality in the references to both the seven stars and the seven candlesticks. This may have been a pointed reminder to the well-respected, dominant church at Ephesus that no church was “greater” under God than another.

The Good:

2 I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars:
3 And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.

This church had much going for it, especially from a human perspective. Jesus said “I know” their toil, a word that calls an image of putting all of oneself into the work at hand. The steadfast endurance was referenced earlier as a powerful perseverance. They hold strong to orthodoxy, and are effective at weeding out those who would intentionally deceive them and lead them astray.

6 But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

A few verses later, Jesus specifically praises their rejection of the Nicolaitans, proponents of a doctrine that since we are saved, and since the flesh is evil anyway, we might as well indulge in any immorality we choose. These false believers chose to accommodate, to go along with society – eating meat offered to idols, adultery – rather than to follow the command to be different from society, but the Ephesian church would not.

The Bad:

4 Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
5 Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.

However, this church had “left” (a better translation is “abandoned”) its “first love.” There are two primary possibilities for what this means.

The first is that they have lost their enthusiasm, as Christianity becomes a routine. It is the danger of substituting a lesser motivation for the right motivation. It is the danger of doing Christian service for the love of the activity rather than for the love of God.

The second interpretation is that in their zeal for orthodoxy, they have paid the price of love and fellowship. They were clearly beset with constant challenges to their beliefs, outside by an immoral “religion” and inside by heretics like the false teachers and Nicolaitans. It is easy to understand how they could have replaced love for others by distrust, how they could have slipped into skepticism and cynicism in listening to others.

It is best to consider both meanings for this passage. When we let go of the love that Jesus with his redeeming power places in our hearts, it will show both in our love for God and in our love for others, and you can’t truly love others without loving God and vice versa.

A personal aside: there is a point where we do service because we love the fact of having responsibility, we pride ourselves in doing our duty, or doing even more than our share of the work. Jesus tells us that our only reward then is that self-pride. When we do work for Jesus, with our love for Him as the focus, the work is different, and the feeling inside is completely changed! For me, the comforting, warm glow of self-esteem is replaced by a vibrant, out-of-control energy that encourages me to recklessly throw myself into whatever the work is. It scares me! I feel myself enthusiastically giving up control. I am overwhelmed by emotion. I enjoy the feeling so much I sometimes later feel selfish and guilty. And the work that is done leaves me staring in awe at God’s fingerprints. As I now “see through a glass darkly,” I think this is what Jesus intends to give us when we let him!

Jesus is clear in what is demanded of them: (a) remember (”keep on remembering”) how you used to be, (b) repent and turn away from your error, (c) do like you used to do. Otherwise, Jesus is coming to remove their lamp stand. In other words, this offense is serious enough to destroy the church. The verb tense used in the Greek eliminates this as being nature taking its course – John portrays this as an intentional pruning.

I mentioned with “The Good” the verse about hating the Nicolaitans, although John specifically placed that praise immediately after the chastisement. In doing so, John made a point about the dual, linked nature of love and hate. You can’t be passionate about something with out being opposingly passionate about that which would destroy it! In our culture and in our religion, we don’t like to deal with hate, we prefer to suppress it, and at times, we suppressing our love in the process.

The Blessing:

7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.

Notice that the blessing talks about giving the Ephesians food from the tree of life in Paradise. This may be a contrast with the Nicolaitans, who had no reluctance to eat food from pagan temples. It certainly is a reference to the end times, when the glory of Eden would be restored as man’s relationship with God was made right again, as in the vision at the end of Revelation of the Tree of Life growing in the New Heaven.

Revelation 2:8-11 – Smyrna

Background:

Smyrna was north of Ephasus, on a gulf of the Aegean Sea. It rivaled it’s southern neighbor in trade and size, and exceeded Ephesus in beauty and in culture.

Part of the beauty of Smyrna can be attributed to an earlier tragedy. The city was destroyed in 580 B.C., and was rebuilt to a comprehensive city plan in 290 B.C. That plan used broad boulevards as main thoroughfares, and emphasized the beauty of the temples by placing them artistically on the hills surrounding the city.

The city had deeper ties to Rome than any in the area, even though it was Ephesus that had the status as a “free city.” They had allied with Rome before it became a power in that region, and it was the first place in Asia to conduct emperor worship. At the time of the letter, the city had an important temple to the deceased emperor Tiberius.

The Jewish community there was well established and respected, and very hostile towards the Christian church because of their straying from the Jewish orthodoxy and because their reputation damaged the “good name” of the Jews in Smyrna. Sixty years after Revelation was written, there was a particularly famous account of the martyrdom of Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna. The rage of the Jews towards Polycarp was so great that they gathered firewood (”did work”) to burn him at the stake on a Sabbath day.

The situation for Christians was very difficult in Smyrna because of the attitudes of the rest of the citizens. Mobs of emperor worshipers and mobs of Jews would attack Christians and rob them of anything they owned. Death was a constant threat, either from trumped-up charges made to the magistrates or from mob violence.

Character of Christ:

8 And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive;

The description of Christ as He “who became dead and came to life again and is still living” is a clear reference to Easter and the Resurrection, and for the early Christians, a defiant statement to remind them of how different they were than the Jews or the Emperor worshipers. In a city famous because it was destroyed and rebuilt to better than before, Jesus reminds them that he died and came back to life, and so provides us with eternal life.

There was also purposeful significance to Smyrnans in the description of Jesus as “the first and the last”. The citizens of Smyrna were avid participants in the government of their town, with great efforts spent to achieve the highest forms of recognition and authority. To this, Jesus reminds them that He is the first and the last authority.

The Good:

9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.
10 Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

The Greek word for “poverty” used here to describe this church is not the word we translate as “poor,” but the word we translate as “destitute” – they had nothing! The temptation must have been great to give in a little, to rejoin the synagogue to survive. Jesus knew they had nothing, but reminded them that they had riches as well – God’s gifts, assurances, the fellowship of believers. This must have reminded them of the teaching of Jesus, “Do not amass for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break through and steal, but procure for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

They also faced “tribulation”, a word that, translated literally, means a “burden that crushes.” Slander from Jews to cause them to be outcasts and to be put to death. This text turns around a common boast from the Jews to call them a synagogue of Satan, but Jesus says it is the Jews who, compromising with the Smyrnans, who are the evil ones.

For these Christians, suffering is coming, but Jesus tells them not to fear the “first death,” but to rely on God. Their testing would be for 10 days, a number symbolic of completeness. What that means is their persecution would be for as long as necessary for God to accomplish his purposes, a reminder that even in their struggle and pain, God is in control.

The Bad:

None!

The Blessing:

11 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.

If they would be faithful to death, Jesus will graciously give them the Crown of Life. This was a reference not to a ruler’s crown of authority, but a victor’s garland of achievement. However, even the church’s faithfulness cannot “earn” the Crown — it is a gift from the Grace of God. For the persecuted Christian grasping to hope, this is a relief! God isn’t holding them to a standard for how well they do in the persecution for them to “earn” it. The crown is a gift because of who God is. The church has nothing to lose, all to gain!

Whoever conquers (a specific military term) will not be harmed by the second death. There are several reasons for this choice of words. One is as a contrast to the first death, which would in earthly terms be seen as a defeat. Another is a reminder that they, not the Jews, had the Truth. The Jews didn’t really understand Heaven – that came with the teaching of Christ. They did have a concept that everyone faced the first death, and all but the Elect would face the second, eternal death. Or, to quote Hal Lindsey, “he who is born but once shall die twice, but he who is born twice shall die but once.”

Revelation 2:12-17 – Pergamum

Background:

Pergamum was a much older town than Ephesus or Smyrna, and had for 400 years been a capital of that region. The town was beautiful, built high on a hill overlooking the River Caicus. The town was known as a seat of government, and the Roman officials had their regional headquarters there. It was also a center of culture and knowledge, with a library of 20,000 volumes, second in size only to the famous one in Alexandria.

The town was the location of three different worship centers. The most visibly prominent was to the Greek gods Zeus and Athena, which went along with the town’s reputation as a seat of culture, but also underscored that the town was “past its prime” by worshiping the anachronistic Greek gods. The most historically significant was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing, because this temple was the closest thing in the ancient world to a hospital. The temple was served equally by priests and doctors. Several items in the worship of Asclepius would have bothered Christians — the proper title for this god was “Asclepius the Savior,” and the symbol for Asclepius, still seen today on medical badges, was of a snake. However, there were much bigger problems in Pergamum.

As the administrative center for the Roman government in Asia, Pergamum also served as the “diocese” for emperor worship. To enforce that worship, the Roman governor in Pergamum was of the small class of governors who had the ius gladii, the “right of the sword.” This ruler could execute anyone on the spot in the name of the Roman government, and the proconsul of Pergamum had executed people who would not worship Caesar.

Character of Christ:

12 And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges;

Christ is described as the one with the two-edged sword. Jesus reminded the church at Pergamum that in the end, it was He that truly had the “right of the sword.”

By the time of this writing, the image of Jesus’s two-edged sword being the Word of God was well established, and can be found in both Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12. This would have been a particularly strong image for John, who wrote in his Gospel that the Word had become flesh and dwelt among us. Given that the problems at Pergamum involved the compromising of their faith, this imagery was a call to this church to get back into the Word.

The Good:

13 I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.

It was obviously tough to be a Christian in Pergamum – Jesus said they lived in the “seat of Satan,” which most commentators believe refers to the seat of Roman rule and emperor worship for that region of Asia Minor.

However, there is more to the statement of Jesus that “I know where you live.” The normal Greek word that early Christians used for “to live” was paroikein, specifically “to sojourn,” since our only true home is Heaven. In this case, Jesus purposefully used the Greek word katoikein, “to reside”, to drive home the point that this was their earthly permanent residence. To refer to the Pergamum Christians under this kind of persecution as sojourners would be to downplay their struggle and encourage them to move away. As Barclay points out, “the principle of the Christian life is not escape, but conquest.” The choice of this one Greek word affirms the conquest of their faith in the location where God called them to reside.

Their condition was underscored by a particularly trying period that had included the martyrdom of Antipas, of which we know almost nothing other than what is in this verse. In this verse, however, Antipas is called “my Faithful Martyr,” a phrase more powerful in Greek than English. The term for Martyr is martus, which is also translated as “witness.” For early Christians, the two were often one in the same. This exact Greek phrase, used here more as a title, appears also in Revelation 1:5, but in that case, John refers to Jesus! What an message of the faithfulness of Antipas and his reward in Heaven.

The Bad:

14 But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.
15 So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.
16 Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

But even as they withstood the direct confrontation of their beliefs by emperor worship, some succumbed to the compromise of their faith by following after “Balaam” and the Nicolaitans. The reference to Balaam is to a false prophet in ancient Israel who had been hired by the king of Moab to destroy the Israelites from inside by compromising their worship. This church was lured by the same compromising teachings: that it was acceptable to worship God and superstitions, and that it was polite to compromise and accept the ways of non-believers, and that relaxed moral standards were not a problem. This would have been in line with the Nicolaitan beliefs that are referenced in the letter to Pergamum.

Their compromise of faith conflicts directly with Paul’s writing in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul wrote in I Corinthians 9:22 that “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” His emphasis there is not to lower the standards of Christianity to the common norm as was being done in Pergamum, but to bring some others up to the fullness of Christianity however possible.

Jesus was clear that he would fight with those who wandered. This Greek verb used is unquestionably aggressive, but the focus is selective – not on the whole church, but strictly to those that have compromised their beliefs. It may be that we interpret the verb here as so strong because our human tendency is to “excuse” our failures, to explain away why we are not really to blame for what we do wrong. For those in the wrong at Pergamum, as for all sinners through time, there is only the option of complete repentance.

In the imagery of Jesus fighting with the wanderers is the weapon He will use — the two-edged sword of the Word of God. Unlike the Roman proconsul with the right of the sword, Jesus is not here described as an executioner. Jesus will confront and convict those at Pergamum of the error of their ways by His Word and thus lead them back into a proper faith — He never gives up on them!

The Blessing:

17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

For both of the promises made to those in this church who conquer, that of hidden manna and of a white stone with a secret new name on it, there are several parallel interpretations that shed meaning to these images.

Manna is first introduced in Exodus 16 as the way that God fed His people in the wilderness as they were waiting to be led into the Promised Land. This by itself coveys that we belong to God and are in his care, even more so when we think of Jesus as being the Bread of Life broken for us. A blessing referring to food from God again symbolizes the difference between true believers and the Nicolaitans, as it did in the letter to the church in Ephasus. As we continue with the references to the Nicolaitans, consider that there was much more wrong with their practice of accommodation than merely where they chose to buy meat.

The phrase “hidden manna” refers to a legend surrounding the fall of Judah when conquered by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C., at which time the temple was demolished. The prophet Jeremiah was supposed to have taken from the temple a pot of manna that was one of several items kept in the Holy of Holies since the time of Moses. To save this one holy item from the Babylonians, Jeremiah took this pot of manna and hid it in a rock cleft on Mount Sinai. There legend says it would remain hidden until the Messiah comes. Thus, this first image encourages the followers with the sustaining love of Jesus to be made complete at the second coming.

There are many different historical interpretations that can be made of a white stone. Many of these refer to a colloquial first century reference that a white stone represented a day where good things happened, as opposed to a “black stone day.” Another use for white tablets was as tickets admitting the bearer to feasts.

White and black stones were also used by judges at that time to vote for guilt or innocence, and the only other use of this Greek word for stone was Paul recounting in Acts 26:10 how he had voted for the stoning of Steven by casting a black stone. Thus, we can interpret this white stone from Jesus as the eternal forgiveness we receive at the Judgement.

A stone with a name on it refers to the pagan practice of carrying around a good luck charm with the name of a god on it, giving the bearer some sense of power. The name on the stone here may refer to a new name for the believer, but most commentators believe this name is for God. That it is a secret, new name emphasizes the special, close relationship that Jesus wants to have in Heaven with each of us. The giving of the name of “Faithful Witness” to Antipas earlier in this letter emphasizes how special that will be!

Revelation 2:18-29 – Thyatira

(Pronounced “THIGH – a – TIE – ra”)

Background:

Finally, a city that wasn’t one of the major cities of the region! Thyatira was on the road between the capital city of Pergamum and the inland city of Sardis. It’s major geographical value was as a military outpost to protect the approach into Pergamum, but it was in a lousy tactical location down in a valley. Because it was on a trade route between major cities, it thrived on trade, and was notable for the number of crafts guilds in the town. Lydia, the seller of purple that had founded a church in Philippi (Acts 16:14), had come from from Thyatira.

This city was the least significant of the seven cities in Revelation, but to it was the longest of the seven letters written. This would have been a pointed reminder to those in Asia that God does not size up the world by the same measuring sticks that we use.

Unlike the first three cities, there were no powerful pagan temples to fight against the beliefs of the Christians. The struggle there was more economic — financial success meant being a member of one of the craft or trade guilds, organizations that were as strong as unions are today. The moral struggle for a Christian participating in these guilds were at the mandatory social functions and feasts, often held in a pagan temple, with their formal sacrifices to the patron god of their craft, the meat sacrificed to idols, and frequent immorality. However, rejecting the guilds meant losing financial opportunities.

Character of Christ:

18 And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass;

The appearance of the “Son of God,” with eyes as a flame and feet of burnished bronze, spoke of overwhelming power – eyes that could see into any hidden places, feet that were firmly planted and immovable. The reference to brass and fire hit home to the craftsmen who worked with brass and metals, but the reference also carried back into Daniel’s image of an angelic messenger in 10:6. In this image is power, seriousness, and purity, setting the stage for uncompromising “straight talk” to this church.

The Good:

19 I know thy works, and charity, and service, and faith, and thy patience, and thy works; and the last to be more than the first.

The first of the straight talk in the letter concerns what this church is doing well. They are praised for their love, their loyalty and faithfulness to Jesus, their service and ministry to others, and their steadfast endurance. Further more, they are doing increasingly more of these works as time goes on. The image would be of a vibrant, growing church, one that to human observers would be a big success.

The Bad:

20 Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.
23 And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

Then the straight talk starts naming names! The woman, who is labelled as “a Jezebel” and about which we know nothing more than what is in Revelation, clearly was an influential leader and “pillar” of this church (”a prophetess”). Like Jezebel of 1 Kings 16, she must have used her influence to compromise Christian beliefs. She wanted to build up the church, but she apparently valued that church at the expense of holding true to the Savior.

Note that Jesus has this against the whole of the church that they tolerate Jezebel. Jesus holds her accountable for her evil, but He also demands of his followers to confront what is wrong and outside of His teachings.

The two specific charges made against Jezebel are that she led the church members to immorality and eating food offered to idols – this is a similar story of compromise and accommodation to society as in the previous letters. The key differences for Thyatira was that the motivation in this church would have been economic, and that this wasn’t a slipping away from the Truth but a blatant, open teaching of how to compromise. I believe that the immorality and idolatry presented for this church address the gamut of other moral compromises that the church members probably made to go along with the economic powers in the region, and could have included “accepted” practices of deceptive pricing, unfair weights, hidden charges, misrepresented materials, and the like. I believe that Jezebel had no problem encouraging the church members to go along with the “Caesar is Lord” pledge as a “cost of doing business.”

Leon Morris cautions that we today should not consider this prevalent problem of the first century church as irrelevant for our day. Christ commands His church to be in the world but not part of the world. We do not have the option of being “a group of old-fashioned people always trying to retreat from the real world.” Likewise, we cannot compromise our faith to more fully embrace the real world as Jezebel did.

24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine, and which have not known the depths of Satan, as they speak; I will put upon you none other burden.
25 But that which ye have already hold fast till I come.

Jesus praises the “rest of you”, those that have not followed this Jezebel. In His praise is indication of more dangerous side to these false teachings than we have seen in Ephasus or Pergamum, as in verse 24: “…have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan’…” Talbert believes that this phrase references the Christian’s knowledge that there is nothing to a false God, so Jezebel’s followers used this knowledge to justify accommodating false religions. Since they know there is no Zeus, that God alone is the one God, what harm does it do to participate in “worship” of one who does not exist? What clearly false, twisted logic!

Barclay interprets a more insidious problem in this heresy led by Jezebel. The structure of the phrase parallels Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 2:10 that “the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” From this parallel passage, this teaching could be a Christian gnostic deviancy of the day that sought to probe the depths of Sin, and claimed that God’s grace would abound as Christians sinned more. After all, Christians belonged to God in the end, so they could not be “lost” in sin. Some even considered it a duty to sin!

We don’t need to understand the exact nature of Jezebel’s teachings to understand the essence of what she was doing. Here we have a church that by all human appearances is strong and effective, but the one with eyes like a flame of fire sees that the church is in state of dangerous compromise in its beliefs and practices.

Once again, God’s judgement is so much wiser than our human judgement. In our assessment, surely a church with so much evil teaching would be the worst of the churches in Asia, much worse than that one in Ephesus! However, Jesus sees in Thyatira a degree of promise and faith that was not possible to the church that had lost its first love. Jesus had given Jezebel, her paramours (those that would try out her teachings) and her children (those that had fully accepted her teachings) every opportunity to repent. Notice that I do not interpret this list as a literal one, as one commentator does in interpreting the individual immorality of the person Jezebel. While Jezebel likely did commit adultery, she also led the church in collective “adultery.” In response, Jesus would bring sickness, affliction, and death on those as was necessary to show the church that He is the rightful and only head of the church.

In this threat is a reminder that it isn’t the outward works that are the measure of Christian faith, but what is inside that truly counts. Jesus is the one that searches “minds and hearts” (in the vernacular of the first century, this is literally the “hearts and kidneys” as the seat of reason and emotion) and judges by the works found there.

The Blessing:

26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:
27 And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father.
28 And I will give him the morning star.
29 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

For those in Thyatira that did not hold to the teachings of Jezebel, Jesus requires them to hold on to their faith, and Jesus will come with power and strength to sustain them. Note that He doesn’t excuse those that are led astray by Jezebel — we are all accountable for our own actions and our beliefs!

The first promise for those that conquer is a reference to the Messianic promise of Psalm 2:8-9, where God establishes his Son as ruler over all the earth and subdues all earthly powers. To add to the appropriateness of this blessing, the “iron rod” and the “clay pots which are shattered” would be even more of the products made by this city of craftsmen! Jesus not only tailors His message to the truth that each church needs to hear, but puts it in terms that are closest and most meaningful to each church! For those who continue, the power of Jesus in the Second Coming are theirs.

The second promise is that they will be given the morning star. This is a reference to the end of Revelation (22:16), where Jesus proclaims that He is the bright and morning star.

Revelation 3:1-6 – Sardis

Background:

Situated at junction of five roads thirty miles south-east of Thyatira, Sardis generated much commerce, particularly in textiles and wool, but it wasn’t the city it had once been. The city never quite recovered from an earthquake in 17 A.D., although Emperor Tiberius had excused the city of taxes for five years and gave them other funds to rebuild.

It was a very rich city, with “old” money, dating back to the famously rich King Croesus in sixth century B.C., but this wealth led to listlessness. The city had high walls and was built high on a hill, such that three sides of the hill were sheer cliffs fifteen hundred feet high. However, the city fell to military attack in both 549 B.C. by Cyrus the Persian and in 218 B.C. by Antiochus because of the same lazy oversight — both attacks took place at night with no guards on duty to warn of the enemy troops climbing the city walls.

Character of Christ:

1 And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; …

Christ is described as having the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. Remember that in Revelation 1:4, the “seven spirits” of God represented the entirety of the Holy Spirit, who ministers at the same time to all the churches. Likewise, the seven stars represent Christ’s ownership of all the churches. The message is He that has the greatest spiritual power for a church which had a dead spirit.

The Good:

There is almost no good identified in this letter. In verse 4, Jesus says that there are a few who “have not soiled their clothes.” These have followed Christ without compromising their faith. While the church is “dead,” there are some parts that are still hanging to life that can be revived.

The Bad:

… I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.
2 Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect before God.
3 Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.
4 Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.

Jesus tells this church that they have a good reputation, that of being alive, but He knows they are dead. Unlike its neighboring churches, neither the Jews nor the Romans had bothered this church, most likely because they had no reason to! Luke 6:26warns “woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Barclay notes that there was no mention of heresy in the church, because “heresy is the product of a searching mind.”

Jesus said He knew what they had done, and nothing measured up to God’s standards. This isn’t because of the quality of the work (nothing we can do is “good enough” on its own merits), but because of the motivation of the work — God can’t do anything with their work because they are dead in the spirit.

Jesus first admonishes the church to change. Wake up (better translated “show yourself watchful”)! Strengthen what remains but now is at the point of death! Remember (better translated “never let yourself forget”) what and how you received and heard! Obey and keep obeying it, and repent now! The word repent calls for a strong, immediate response, and refers to a change in the slack believer’s way of thinking about Christ.

If this church continues to sleep, just as the watchmen did in the two attacks on the city, Jesus will come as if in the night and no one would know when. This is a judgement to this church, not the Second Coming.

They are called to be like the few who have not soiled (literally “polluted”) their clothes, and who will be garbed instead in white with Jesus in Eternity. There was a common rule of pagan temples at the time that those who wore dirty clothes to a temple would dishonor the deity. The “white garments” can have a number of meanings, including the Old Testament implication that white garments mean having to do with Heaven, and the Roman practice of wearing white robes to feasts and weddings, but the best interpretation is likely the symbolism of justification, through faith.

It is easy to forget in the challenge to those who are spiritually “dead” how those that are spiritually alive are keeping a living faith. These are “ordinary” Christians, who slip and fall from time to time, but who see the criticality of continually renewing themselves in Christ. Their work is not necessarily profound, but their works are done in a way that God can use and multiply them. They have no more “earned” salvation than anyone, but because of their humility and attitude, they accept the grace God gives.

The Blessing:

5 He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
6 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

Jesus calls the church to be like the few, so they will receive white robes, so their names will not be blotted out of the Book of Life, and so Jesus will “confess their names” before the Father. The key distinction for those whose names are in the Book of Life is not what they say or profess, but what they are truly like on the inside. Many in this church had apparently outwardly “received and heard,” and carried out the motions of following Christ, but were still inwardly “dead,” having never truly accepted the grace of God.

Revelation 3:7-13 – Philadelphia

Background:

Philadelphia was the youngest of the seven cities listed. It was founded around 145 B.C. by colonists from Pergamum, under the rule of Attalus II. Attalus’s love for his brother Eumenes was such that he was called Philadelphos, thus the name of the city.

The purpose of founding the city was to share the Greek culture with the regions of Lydia and Phrygia. It did such a good job with its mission that by 19 A.D., the Lydians had forgotten their language in favor of Greek.

Philadelphia was at the edge of a large volcanic fissure, which was the source of the earthquake in 12 A.D. that destroyed both Sardis and Philadelphia. The Emperor Tiberius was as generous to Philadelphia as he was to Sardis, but unlike Sardis, Philadelphia successfully rebuilt. In gratitude, the city renamed itself Neocaesarea, and then under Vespasian, changed its name to Flavia (after his family name). The city finally succumbed to common usage and changed its name back to Philadelphia.

Because Philadelphia was so close to this fissure, the city was hit for years by aftershocks and smaller earthquakes. Often these quakes damaged parts of the town, and the city’s residents were often chased from their houses into the open to escape being hit by falling structures. As a result, many people lived outside the town in huts and would refuse to walk the city streets.

Also because of the volcanic activity, the soil was rich and particularly suitable for the best grape crops in Asia Minor, so the people worshipped the Roman god Bacchus.

In later days, Philadelphia stood as a free Greek city after the rest of the region had fallen to the Turks. The town was home for centuries to a vibrant Christian church although the rest of the region staunchly followed Mohammedanism.

Character of Christ:

7 And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth;

The Greek word for “true” in the description of Jesus as “the true one” is alethinos, which means “real”. More to this point, this word is the antonym to “unreal” — this congregation of faithful followers should know that the Jesus they serve is no shadowy abstraction.

Jesus is described as the one with the key of David, symbolizing authority. This image references the Old Testament story of a faithful steward to King Hezekiah named Eliakim (see 2 Kings 18), who alone controlled access to the King. In Isaiah 22:22, God speaks through the image of Eliakim of one who would take the key of David, and have the authority of opening and shutting the new city of David. We are reminded that Jesus holds the keys to both Heaven and Hell.

The Good:

8 I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.

In this passage, we have a simple and comprehensive reminder of how basic our job is in God’s plan. If we are faithful with whatever we have, even it it is just a little strength, God can work through us in incredible ways to accomplish His work in the world.

This letter doesn’t mention any struggles this church had, although from the reference to the Jews, it sounds like they had similar challenges to what the church in Smyrna had. I think this means that the church in Philadelphia had such a “overcoming” attitude in the strength of their faith that their struggles weren’t worth mentioning.

The mention of “open doors” references carrying a message to the uninitiated, as Philadelphia did with Greek culture to the region. In the case of Christianity, this is the missionary work of spreading the Gospel. At the same time, Jesus said that He was the door to eternal life, so the reference also means both Jesus and eternal life. I am reminded in this of Jesus’s parable of the land owner that trusted his wealth to three servants while he was gone. At the end, the rewards for the faithful servants included more opportunities to work.

The Bad:

None!

The Blessing:

9 Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.

The blessing, that the unfaithful Jews would bow down before their feet parallels but changes the promise to the Jews that at the end time, all the Gentile nations would pay homage to God’s people as those who knew the Truth. Clearly, the “synagogue of Satan” had forfeited their right to this recognition of God’s blessing, but the church of Philadelphia was faithful.

While we’re on the topic of the Jewish people, we ought to consider the matter of Jews in different interpretations of Revelation. One key difference in interpretations deals with the role of the Jews in God’s ultimate plan. Those who look for symbolism use passages like this, discussing the failure of the Jews, as reason to interpret the “remnant of the Jews” in the rest of the book as Christians. Others who object to substituting symbolism for what can be read literally see in the “remnant” as the ultimate completion of God’s promise to Abraham, even though most of the Jews rejected God’s Son. For me, that feels like an empty, academic debate. For those like me who are Gentiles, it doesn’t apply to us personally. Passages like this certainly should not discourage Christians from sharing the gospel with Jews, on the off-chance that they, the “remnant”, will get into Heaven anyway!

10 Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.

The image in the blessing is of a church that has followed the example set by Christ when on earth in his endurance to do the Father’s will, and Christ’s promise to do the same for that church, to “keep them safe”. It is significant that of all these seven churches, the Christian community in Philadelphia is the only one that lasted through the conquest of the area by the Turks. This city has been home to a Christian church continuously since the book of Revelation was written. The “hour of testing” for the whole world probably refers to the Old Testament prophesies that are repeated in Revelation, of the tribulations ushering in the end times.

This passage brings up a fundamental problem in translating prepositions from the Greek; it is unclear whether the church is “safe from testing” or “safe in testing” — the Greek syntax allows either interpretation. The choice of this preposition is significant in the interpretation of later passages where some faithful Christians are hidden away, “safe from testing” during the start of the Antichrist’s rule. Others point out that if read as “from,” this passage contrasts too much with the message to the other church that received no criticism, Smyrna. Jesus tells the church in Smyrna to hold on through the affliction they will experience for “ten days.” If the passage to Philadelphia is read as “safe in testing,” the two passages would compliment each other, as well as the passage in John 17:14-15 where Jesus prays for his followers, who are not of the world, that they would not be taken out of the world but instead given protection from the evil one in the world.

I personally have a theological problem with the church of Philadelphia being “safe from testing” because of their endurance. We cannot expect that if we are good, good things will happen or our lives will be easy. First, we can never be “good enough” – it is only in God’s grace that we have any “goodness.” Second, our focus must always be on how we can love God more deeply and follow Him more closely, whether that leads us to protection or persecution. Third, God continuously prepares us for His service, and it seems to me opposite to God’s way of working that He would pull us out of a challenge except to prepare or use us for other challenges.

11 Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.

This phrase combines both reassurance to the faithful oppressed, and warning to those that would stop enduring. The inference in “no one may take your crown” is not that the crown would be stolen, but that the holder would forfeit his right to it. Note the contrast presented here – Jesus has opened doors that no one may close, but we can lose our right to wear the crown of those that persevere and overcome.

12 Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: …

To a city plagued by earthquakes, the image of a firm pillar was the strength that no structure in Philadelphia could demonstrate. Because of this strength, no one ever would have to flee out of the city in fear of earthquakes any more. Note that those who earlier were described as having “little strength” in their city are made to be part of the foundation of the temple of God. The pillar also brings up descriptions in Galatians 2:9 of Peter, James, and John as the pillars in the early Jerusalem church, so there is an example of faith as well in this architectural image.

… and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.
13 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

In the description of Jesus writing names are several first century images. First was the cultural association of the essence of someone with their name, which we still reflect when we pray “in the name of Jesus.” Another was one way that pagan rulers were honored at their death by the building of a pillar in the local temple with the name of the ruler engraved on it. Another appropriate image of writing on a name was the branding of slaves with the name of their master. In the Jewish faith, the high priest always had the name of God on his forehead. The residents of Philadelphia were familiar with new names, as their town had been changed to honor the benefactors of the town. A passage in Ezekiel 48:35 carries that naming one step further when the prophet writes that our heavenly home would be a city named “the Lord is there,” a promise of the eternal presence and blessing of God.

Revelation 3:14-22 – Laodicea

Background:

The city of Laodicea of Lycus was at the junction of three key roads, with the most important one being from Ephesus to Syria, then another from Pergamum to Pamphylia, and one from eastern Caria to west Phrygia.

It became a great banking and finance center under the peaceful rule of the Roman empire, and was without question the richest city in Asia Minor. When it was damaged by an earthquake in 60 A.D., the city refused financial help from the Romans and rebuilt the town with its own money.

The town was a center of clothing manufacture, particularly in black wool from the sheep that were raised in the surrounding valleys. The town was often called “Trimitaria” because it was the source of the trimita tunics that were very popular across the Roman empire.

In and around the town were numerous medical centers, with a specialty for treating ear and eye problems. Some of the doctors from these facilities were so well admired in Laodicea that their faces were put on the town’s coins.

The town had a very large Jewish community, with at least 7500 Jewish families resident in Laodicea in 62 B.C., and the community had been granted the right to preserve their customs. The town, along with the neighboring city Hierapolis, served as a regional center for the Jewish religion.

Paul had been aware of problems with the church in Laodicea, because he wrote in his letter to neighboring Colossae a stern reprimand to Archippus, the bishop in Laodicea, to “fulfill the ministry which you have received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17)

Character of Christ:

14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

Jesus is “the Amen, the witness on whom you can rely.” Everything that Jesus says is true because he observes all, he tells the truth, and he makes the truth “be so”.

Jesus is “the moving cause of the creation of God,” meaning that he began the process of the creation. This emphasis was important to counter heretics that claimed that the world must have been created by lesser deities because of the sickness and sin in it.

This letter is the one example in which the character of Christ is not taken from the first chapter of Revelation. Instead, this was more personalized, taken from Colossians 1:15-16, which was the letter that Paul told the Colossians to pass along to the church in Laodicea (4:16).

The Good:

None. This is only of the seven churches in which Jesus finds nothing good.

The Bad:

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

The “True Witness” reminded the church that He knew their works, and they made Him sick to his stomach. Their works were like the waterfall outside the city, fed from hot springs six miles away. By the time it reached the town, the water was too cool to be of medicinal value. Likewise, the city’s drinking water came from a cold spring six miles to the south, but after the journey by aqueduct, the cold water was about the same sickeningly tepid temperature as the waterfall.

This state of spiritual tepidness can be interpreted in several ways. One interpretation is indifference towards God’s will, having completely dismissed respect for and fear of God. Another is neutrality towards Jesus Christ and the work we are called to do. These descriptions apply to our century’s unchurched, who are not opposed to the church, but dismiss it as irrelevant. A third interpretation is compromise, “splitting the difference” rather than taking sides, as this church may have done by glorifying both God and Caesar.

In Christ’s condemnation is the implication that it would have been better if these people had never found Christianity than for them to have received it then neutralized it. In our medical terms, they had developed “antibodies” to keep them from “catching” the Spirit.

17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:
18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

Jesus confronted these Christians with the failure of what they thought their city had achieved. The city was confident in its riches that they needed nothing from Rome. Unlike the Christians in Smyrna who were poor in a rich city, these Christians apparently had also prospered, and become self-confident in their success. Jesus said they were poor and wretched. He told them to abandon their gold for His “gold” of purified faith.

The city prided itself with its wool and tunic trade, but Jesus said they were humiliated in their nakedness. They should abandon their famous black wool and clothe themselves in His white garments of righteousness.

The city was famous for eye salves and treatments, but Jesus said they were blind, not seeing the work that Jesus had put before them or their own state of spiritual poverty and shame. They needed His treatment to be able to see the truth.

The Blessing:

19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

The phrase is a quote from Proverbs 3:12, with a twist. In the Greek translation of Proverbs, the word for love was agapan, with the reference to God’s kind of love and an implication of constancy and purity in the love. Jesus here used the word philein, which conveyed a more tender and personal fondness with the love. The readers would have understood from the Proverbs quote that both Greek words applied.

The word for rebuke implies that the purpose is to illuminate the wrong and lead the person to the right, not to condemn or tear down. Many references in Proverbs speak of this kind of love that leads to correction; the alternative is abandonment, as inHosea 4:17.

They are called to be “earnest” in their repentence. The word here for earnest, also translated zealous, is zeleuo, which derived from the word zelos meaning to boil. The image is much stronger than just meaning well. It is also the way to kill off the diseases that would have flourished in the city’s tepid water.

20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.

In this blessing is the often-preached passage, “I am at the door knocking.” This passage seems to reference Jesus’s teachings in Luke 12:36 and elsewhere that we must be alert because we do not know when the Master will return. To Barclay, a more fitting, beautiful parallel comes from the Song of Solomon 5:2-6, where the man is knocking at the door of his lover. Jesus Christ loves us enough to hunt for us and plead with us to accept His grace, and all we have to do is to open the door. When we do, he sits with us to fellowship and share the meal that marked the end of the day.

Even though this church was so chastised, still to them Jesus promised that the faithful would “sit with me in my throne” (think of a throne couch, not a chair) in honor and in close presence to Jesus.

Common Truths in the Letters

As a simple recap, consider the following truths that are consistent in these seven letters:

  • We must through God’s strength always balance our pursuit of “truth” and of “love.”
  • We cannot “earn” grace by our works, but our faith is weak if it yields no Godly works.
  • Our God is a personal God, dealing as specifically with us as He wrote to the churches.
  • Accommodation with worldly pressures is never an option, nor is tolerance of sin.
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