THE SUREST THING IN THE WORLD
The surest thing in the world is neither death nor taxes; it is the coming again of our Lord Jesus Christ to reign and rule over the earth and to vindicate and explain His first coming, when He was rejected and slain. That is the subject of this magnificent book.
Sadly, no book in Bible has been more misunderstood and misinterpreted than Revelation. Many Christians seem afraid to read it at all. True, there are hard passages to understand, and difficult symbols, but God has given it to us as an open book, and the opening verses promise a blessing to all who take time to read it.
So, what is the book about? Some say it is a sort of history book dealing deals with outstanding events throughout all the Christian era. Others say it is a list of future events, with really no message for us at the present time. Still others say it is a pictorial book spiritualising the perpetual conflict between good and evil, until good finally wins.
The book is an exposition of Christ:
a) His Person
He is “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” (1:8). He is Deity. John’s gospel tells us of Him “in the beginning” with God (John 1:1-3). In Rev 1 we see His Person as He is today – the glorified Christ. In Rev 21:3-6 we see Him as the ultimate end of all things.
b) His Power
He has absolute authority over all creatures, rulers, angels, and even Satan. He also has power over the elements: earthquakes, thunder, light, hail, rain, plagues.
c) His Purpose
To dwell with man! This purpose was not realised at His first coming (John 1:14), but will be realised one day when “he will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God” (21:2-3).
d) His Programme
Before God’s purpose can be accomplished, His programme has to be completed. Presently He is at war with sin, this book tells us how he will eventually destroy it, so that at the end of the book we are introduced to a place where there will be no more sin, and nothing that defiles shall enter into it.
The book has three main movements, each climaxing in the enthronement of the Lamb:
a) The First Movement (1-5)
The goal of this first movement is the enthronement of Christ in heaven. Chapter 1 presents a vivid vision of the glorified Christ in heaven operating through the churches, pictured as lampstands, on earth. Chapters 2 and 3 contain 7 letters to 7 churches, telling of the church on earth functioning for Christ in heaven. Although invisible on earth, He is more active than ever, operating through the churches.
Chapter 4 describes the throne of the Deity and worship in heaven. Chapter 5 tells of the seven–sealed book and the enthronement of the Lamb. This is the purpose of the book’s first movement – to put the Lamb on the throne, and the book cannot go forward until He is there.
b) The Second Movement (6-20)
As soon as the Lamb is enthroned, the apocalypse moves forward into the main body of the book which has as its goal the enthronement of Christ on earth. These terrifying chapters detail the events of the Great Tribulation and “the wrath of the Lamb.” We read of seven seals (chapter 6-7), seven trumpets (chapters 8-9), and seven bowls filled with God’s wrath (chapters 15-16). Eventually in chapters 19 and 20 He comes to rule with a rod of iron. Satan is bound, and Christ is acknowledged as King of kings and Lord of lords.
c) The Third Movement (21-22)
This is the climax of the book, when we are presented with “all things new” and Christ is enthroned in the New Creation. He is now all supreme – “There shall be no more curse, but the Throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it” (22:3).
1. THE INTRODUCTION (1:1-5)
The opening verses of the chapter present the basic scheme of the entire book.
a) The Revelation of the Book (1:1)
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is the book’s central theme book. “Revelation” is apoklypsis, meaning “unveiling,” and the book is thus an “unveiling” of Jesus Christ. It is not the “Revelation of St John the Divine.” The word “of” in the title means “written by” – John was merely the channel.
As a “revelation,” it is not meant to be a mystery to confuse us, but a revelation to clarify for us some great truths about the Lord Jesus. The word revelation has the idea of a spiritual illumination, not mental intelligence. Paul makes it clear in 1 Cor 2:9-14 that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God…neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
b) The Reason for the Book (1:1)
“to show his servants things which must shortly take place.” This means suddenly and certainly. It indicates the rapidity of events after they start. It is the same word as in “Behold I come quickly” (Rev 22:12). God’s programme is all set. No amount of interference by man will alter that programme. Many today want to know the future – here it is!
The purpose of prophecy has never been to satisfy man’s curiosity about the future, or to provide a platform intellectual debate. Prophecy throughout the Bible always has two functions:
(i) To Caution. God’s Word warns that a coming period of unparalleled judgment will sweep over the earth, a period detailed for us in chapters 6-18, and which will climax in the events of chapter 19 as the Lord Himself returns to earth. We are cautioned to contemplate the fact that all the material things that men depend on so much shall be burned up and dissolved
(ii) To Encourage those who are living as they should. It is a reminder that God is always in control, and that He will fulfil His purposes. Many suffering saints have been encouraged as the book reminded them they are on the winning side. They daily look heavenward and breathe the last prayer in the Bible, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”
c) The Readers of the Book
“…to show his servants….” (1:1). “Servant” here is “bondslave.” These are born-again believers who have surrendered their own rights to the Lord, gladly submitting to His authority. It is to such that the book of Revelation will be made plain. This is important, because, a person who has never accepted Christ as Saviour can only look forward to the judgment of this book.
A threefold blessing is promised to :
(i) The Readers. “Blessed is he who reads…” (1:3). Many find the book difficult to understand – full of symbols and figures, but the blessing is not to those who understand; it is to “he that readeth.”
(ii) The Listeners. “and those who hear the words of this prophecy” (1:3). Refers to those listening to others reading it, but also to those studying it.
(iii) The Keepers. “and keep those things which are written in it” (1:3). It is not meant to be a book so enable us to speculate about future events, or to satisfy our curiosity. It is a book to affect our lives to live in the light of the urgency expressed in this verse, that the time of the fulfilment of these events “is near.”
d) The Writer of the Book (1:4)
Here John introduces himself as the author and, just like Paul, begins his letter with a blessing “Grace to you and peace.” This sounds more like a Pauline epistle than an apocalypse! “Grace” is a gift without any strings attached, and includes all that God has done for and given to us.
“Peace” signifies that a war previously existed, but has now ceased. The unsaved person is in a hopeless war against God. Unless such a person accepts God’s offer of peace the warfare will continue through this life and out into eternity. Many think of God as a benign loving gentleman sitting high on His throne above the world who will never judge any of His creatures. That is a wrong view of God.
It is vital to note the source of such blessing: “From Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness” (1:4-5).
(i) The Eternal Father. “From him who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4). This refers to the Father (as the Son is referred to in the next verse). The title corresponds with the Hebrew name Jehovah. Time is an essential feature of creation – time was created, but the Creator is outside time.
(ii) The Holy Spirit. “And from the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (1:4). Who are these “Spirits”? Sometimes angels are referred to as spirits, but here these “seven Spirits” are on equality with the Father and Son. Later in 3:1; 4:5; 5:6 there is explicit reference in the statement “the seven spirits of God.”
(iii) The Son. “And from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, and the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (1:5). This magnificent description of Christ presents Him as:
* “The faithful witness.” To what did Christ witness? The Lord’s whole life was one long witness about God, about the nature of sin, about the need for righteousness, and about the nearness of judgment. That witness climaxed on the cross, as it wrung from His lips the awful cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He left no doubt as to the awfulness of living and dying outside of Himself.
* “The firstborn from the dead.” The word is protokos. In Hebrew thought the main emphasis involves priority of rank, rather than priority in time. His resurrection was different from that of Lazarus and others who were raised only to die again.
* “The ruler over the kings of the earth.” The word prince is better “ruler.” The bad news is that things in this world are going to get worse before they get better! The devil is still to have is final fling. He will set up a coming world dictator will throw out his chest, set up his image, wave his fists at heaven, and burst into blasphemies against the Lamb on the throne. Then God will laugh, and this dictator’s walls will all come tumbling down. God’s King is still on the throne. He is the Prince of the kings of the earth.
2. THE EXPLANATION (1:5b-6)
These verses teaches much about God’s matchless salvation
a) The Motive for Salvation
“To Him who loved us” (1:5). All God’s dealings are based totally on His love. Better present tense, “Loves us.” This is love that will not let us go, love that suffers long and is kind.
b) The Method of Salvation
“and washed us (or loosed us) from our sins in his own blood” (1:5). The reference to “blood” reminds of the value and cost of Christ’s death. If we translate it as “washed” we have the metaphor of sin as a stain. If we translate is as “loosed,” we have the metaphor of sin as a chain. As Charles Wesley put it:
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me
c) The Marvel of Salvation
“And has made us kings and priests to His God and Father” (1:6). He has bestowed upon cleansed sinners the majesty of a prince, and the ministry of a priest. This is our standing before Him! It was always God’s purpose that His people would be “priests,” individual heavenly citizens with access to God and ability to act for Him.
d) The Majesty of Salvation
“To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (1:6). His is the “glory” that outshines the sun, the glory He had with the Father before the world began. It is a glory that one day will be acknowledged by all mankind. The “dominion” will also be His, as every knee till bow to him and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
“for ever and ever” – “to the end of the ages.” This phrase occurs fourteen times in Revelation and is one of the keys to the book. It emphasises the shortness of time and the length of eternity.
3. THE CONSUMMATION (1:7-8)
“Behold, he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him, and they also who pierced him. And all tribes of the earth shall mourn because of him. Even so, Amen” (1:7). This is the dramatic moment to which the whole action of the book is directed. All in the book that precedes this moment is but prelude and preparation; all that follows is postscript.
These verse tell us that His return will be
“Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him.” This is fulfillment of Dan 7:13-14: “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven… and there was given him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which will not be destroyed.” When He ascended, literal clouds received Him out of sight. When He returns, clouds will part to reveal the glorified Christ.
At the rapture only the saints will see Him. This manifestation is totally different. He is seen because He is unveiled.
“All the tribes of the earth shall mourn because of him” (1:7). This is the same as Matt 24:30: “And then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
At the time of His coming men will be engaged in the final follies of Armageddon, goaded on by the Beast and his demon guides. Suddenly they will look up and will see him.
4. THE PRESENTATION (1:8)
“I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, says the Lord, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). Who is speaking here? In the cross suffering was His portion. Now sovereignty is shown to belong to Him. Three titles manifest His deity and proclaim Him to be:
a) Infinite in Knowledge – Omniscient
“I am Alpha and Omega.” These are the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet. Using an alphabet all the knowledge and wisdom of the ages can be stored in written records using an inexhaustible combination. Christ is God’s total message of truth.
b) Infinite in His Presence – Omnipresent
“The Beginning and the End.” His omnipresence here is stated in terms of time, but it is just as true in terms of space. The Lord is present in the midst of any company of His people in any part of the world at any given moment.
c) Infinite in Power – Omnipotent
“The Lord, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). The first part of the expression has already been used to describe the Father (1:4). It is now used to describe the Son. In an age of weakness and failure it is good to focus on the Almighty One who cannot fail. World leaders may fail; so many the church, friends and relatives. But Christ never fails.
Of a one of the most stirring pages in English history tells of the crusades of Richard the Lionhearted. When Richard was away trouncing Saladin, his brother, John, usurped the throne and ruled the realm. The people of England suffered, longing for the return of the King, and praying that it might be soon. Then one day Richard returned. He landed in England and marched straight for his throne. He laid claim to his throne, and none dared to stand in his way. The people shouted their delight. The Lion was back! Long live the King.
One day a King greater than Richard will laid claim to a greater realm than England. Those who have abused the earth in his absence, seized his domains, and mismanaged His world will all be swept aside. Every eye shall see him, including those who pierced Him.
JOHN’S GLIMPSE OF GLORY
Shut away on the bleak and rocky island of Patmos, the Robben Island of Roman times, because of his fearless testimony for Christ, life must have been hard for John. Although then between 90 and 100 years of age, his vision and spiritual vigour were undimmed. He may have been physically confined, but his spirit roamed free, and God used the experience to give him the revelation of overwhelming glory which forms the substance of this book.
1. THE INTRODUCTION (1:9-11)
“ 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” (1:9).
a) His Circumstances
“ I John…was in the isle that is called Patmos” (1:9). John was a prisoner on small rocky, inhospitable island of Patmos about 15 miles from Ephesus. Tradition says he was sent there as an exile under Domitian, one of the most cruel of emperors. Though aged, he was forced to labour in the mines. In this unlikely setting God spoke to him – just as he had done to Moses in the wilderness, to David in the Judean mountains, to Ezekiel by the river Kebar in exile, and to Paul in the Roman prison.
b) His Condition
“ I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (1:10). John was not only “in the isle of Patmos,” he was also “in the spirit.” He was not only witnessing; he was worshipping. As far as Rome was concerned, he was in chains on Patmos. That was his human environment. But he had a heavenly environment – he was “in the spirit” at the feet of Jesus.
A cobbler had a little store where he cobbled shoes. When asked where he lived, he said, “I work down here, but live up there!” John had learned the secret of a life like that.
2. THE VISION (1:12-16)
Before being commissioned to write to the Churches of Christ, he is granted an overwhelming glorious vision of the Christ of the Churches. Here is a basic spiritual principle: God repeatedly prefaces the ministry of His servants with a vision of His glory. Such was the case with Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many others. Note John’s description of the risen Christ:
a) What He Was Doing.
“And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks” (1:12). John saw an active dynamic Christ, walking amongst the seven golden lampstands. He moved from one to the other, examining the light, trimming the wick, and encouraging the flame.
What are these lampstands? In the Old Testament the 7-branched lampstand was a symbol of Israel’s national testimony before God. When that testimony failed, the lampstands was literally removed, first to Babylon, then to Rome. Significantly, the last picture we have of it is on the Arch of Titus, built to celebrate his triumph over the Jews.
The seven lampstands symbolize the testimony for Christ on earth during the present time of His physical absence. They are seven free-standing individual lampstands, clearly referred to as “churches” (1:11).
The significance of the composition, character, and care of the Old Testament lampstand is carried over to the individual lampstands of this chapter:
(i) Their Composition – gold. This speaks of value and glory. Just as the golden Old Testament lampstand was of great value and glorious, so theNew Testamentlampstand, the church, is of great value, being bought with the precious blood of Christ.
(ii) Their Character. In the Old Testament Tabernacle the function of the lampstand was to illuminate the glories and beauty of all else inside sanctuary (all of which spoke of Christ and told of His glory). So the character of the church is to illuminate both person and work of Christ.
(iii) Their Care. It was lit in the morning, filled with oil, and trimmed in the evening. What a perfect parallel with the function and privileges of the present-day church!
b) What He Was Wearing
“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” (1:13).
(i) The Garment. “…clothed with a garment down to the foot” (1:13). John saw Christ as Judge, but notes that He is clothed with a priestly ephod (it is the word used in Exod 28:4 LXX for the robe of the High Priest). He has thus a double role of Priest and Judge. As Judge He examines and condemns all unholiness, but as Priest He sympathises and understands the pressures on His people (Hebrews 4:15).
(ii) The Girdle. “…a golden sash around his chest” (1:13). Aaron’s priestly girdle was of blue, purple, scarlet, and linen, woven with golden threads, setting forth different aspects of Christ’s character. In contrast, this girdle is all of gold, emphasizing His divine glory.
c) What He Was Like
In many ways John’s vision parallels that of “the Ancient of Days” as seen by Daniel (Dan 9:7). Seven features of infinite wisdom and maturity are seen in this majestic picture:
(i) His Humanity. “One like unto the Son of man” (1:13). This title, frequently used in the Gospels and underscores His humanity. The vision thus balances the omniscience of deity with the experience of humanity.
(ii) His Eternity. “His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow” (1:14). This parallels Daniel’s description of The Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9).
(iii) His Infallibility. “His eyes were as a flame of fire” (1:14). The penetrating power of His eyes, cut through all sham and hypocrisy. Fire burns its way into the heart of the toughest timber, and melts the strongest steel. His eyes are as a flame of fire, and flash with holy anger as He sees the ruin sin has made of the earth.
(iv) His Activity. “…and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace” – “His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace” (1:15). Feet speak of activity, here activity in judgement amongst His people. Note the double picture of fire and brass, both familiar Old Testament symbols of purification and judgement, as in the Brazen Altar. Although the book will show Him to be undisputed Judge of all the earth, judgement begins in the House of God.
(v) His Majesty. “His voice as the sound of many waters” (1:15). Here is the same majestic voice which at creation brought a world out of nothing. Try arguing with Victoria Falls! One of the great mysteries of the present age is God’s silence. People challenge God to break it and declare Himself, but they do not understand what that challenge means. To end the silence means to end the period of grace and day of mercy, and means the dawning of the day of wrath.
(vi) His Vitality. “…and out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword” (1:16). Here is the living Word of God. How does He judge His people today? By bringing the living and powerful Word to bear on their lives (Hebrews 4:12).
(vii) His Glory. “His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength” – “His face was as the sun shining in all its brilliance” (1:16). We cannot look at the sun. It is so brilliant it loses weight by radiation at the rate of 4,2 million tons per second. John found the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to be totally dazzling. It is the same glory from which the heaven and earth will one day flee away (20:11). What a difference from His first advent when wicked men covered His countenance with vile spittle and plucked the hairs from His cheeks.
d) What He Was Holding
“He had in His right hand seven stars” (1:16). The symbol of “the seven stars” will be explained in 1:20 by the Lord Himself. They are the messengers of the churches. “His right hand” is the place of:
(i) Protection. In His hand His people are totally secure (John 10:28).
(ii) Possession. His “right hand” is also the place of possession. His people belong to Him, and it is precisely for this reason that He must examine and purify His own.
(iii) Power. The “right hand” speaks of perfect power.
3. THE REACTION (1:17)
“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.” None of the disciples knew the Lord more intimately than John. For three years he had shared His life, and even pillowed his head on His breast. Yet this new vision of the One he loved and knew so well stunned and overwhelmed him, that he fell at His feet as dead.
We, too, need a new vision of His glory, and the reminder from His Word that He still moves amongst His people, examining the lampstands of their individual and communal lives. The disciple who leaned on the breast of the Saviour now falls at His feet. A glimpse of God’s glory always has this effect on men: Abraham, Manoah, Ezekiel, Daniel all did the same.
4. THE DECLARATION (1:17,18)
“Fear not; I am the first and the last: 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.”
“I am the first and the last.” Christ as the Eternal One stands outside history. Three times in this book (1:17; 2:8; 22:13) He claims this divine title also seen in the Old Testament (Is 41:4; 44:6; 48:12). It is proof of His claim to deity. It is amazing that the self-existent one should enter a limited life-span of 33 years!
“ I am he that liveth,” lit. “the living one.” This was a designation used by the Hebrews to designate the true from the false gods. Jer 10:10: “But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God and the king of eternity” (AV marg).
“…and was dead.” Better, “I became dead.” Matthew says He “yielded up this spirit.” Mark and Luke say, “He gave up the ghost,” John says, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
“…and behold, I am alive for evermore.” Now He has emerged from death’s domain. “For evermore” translates the expression “for ever and ever,” and is the strongest expression in the Bible to express unending time.
“ and have the keys of hell and of death.” The “keys” speak of His absolute authority in the realm of “death and hell” which have caused so much grief down through the ages. Death demands the body; hades (hell) claims the soul. The Lord became subject to death and entered into hades. Through His death and resurrection He has triumphed over Satan and won the right to hold absolute authority over death and hades. For many of John’s time Caesar held the authority of life and death. This would have brought them comfort. Even today, when life is threatened by dark experiences, it still brings comfort.
5. THE INSTRUCTION (1:19)
“ Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter.” The contents of the book are divided into three
a) “the things which thou hast seen.” This points back to what John has already seen this embraces 1:10-16 and echoes the verb “I saw” of 1:12,17. Their subject is Christ communicating with His servant.
b) “and the things which are.” These are things presently existing. They are detailed in chapters 2-3 and deal with the existing churches and unfold Christ examining the seven churches.
c) “and the things which shall be hereafter.” These are the things to come. This refers to events of chapters 4-22, and the subject is Christ acting in the cosmos.
6. THE EXPLANATION (1:20)
“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” (1:20).
This is clearly a night scene with stars in the heavens and lampstands on earth. The Lord Himself interprets the symbols.
“The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches.” Who or what are these “angels”? These “angels” are God’s “messengers,” a word which in the Greek is often used of men. Here it likely refers to those responsible for the churches of God’s people. There is no hint anywhere that angels bear any responsibility for assemblies. In fact, Colossians teaches the opposite. Instead men are held responsible (Acts 20:28). Hence “the angels” here are those appointed by the Lord to represent and be held responsible for the condition of each assembly.
CHRIST’S LETTERS TO THE SEVEN CHURCHES
Revelation 2 & 3
Following the powerful vision of the glorified Christ of the Churches in chapter 1, the Holy Spirit now directs seven letters to the Churches of Christ. Of the many churches in Asia Minor, only seven were selected, all situated in towns in western Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Sadly, nothing remains today to remind the visitor that these towns contained vigorous and thriving testimonies.
The Structure Of The Letters
The seven letters have a number of common features, as Christ followed a set pattern in addressing each assembly.
a) The Introduction
Each begins with a description of Christ, usually based on the vision of chapter 1, and the statement “I know thy works” (apart from the letters to Smyrna and Pergamos, where it is just stated “I know”).
b) The Main Body of each letter includes words of:
(i) Commendation: “I know thy works…”
(ii) Criticism: “But I have this against thee…”
(iii) Counsel: “Remember, therefore, …and repent”
(iv) Challenge: “To him that overcometh…”
Interestingly, the letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia contain no word of criticism, while in those to Sardis and Laodicea there is no word of commendation.
c) The Conclusion
Each letter closes with a promise to the “overcomers,” and a final appeal to “He that hath an ear….”
Interpretation and Application
The letters may be studied from several different angles:
The letters were addressed to seven historical 1st century churches, each with its own problems and circumstances. Christ shows Himself aware of their individual circumstances, strengths, weaknesses, and their differing spiritual states.
Ephesus – The Loveless Church
Smyrna – The Suffering Church
Pergamos – The Worldly Church
Thyatira – The Corrupt Church
Sardis – The Reformed Church
Philadelphia – The Evangelical Church
Laodicea – The Lukewarm Church
The seven letters together describe “the things which are” (1:19), and cover successive church periods over the last 2000 years as follows:
Ephesus – the powerful apostolic church of the 1st century.
Smyrna – the martyr period of intense suffering in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Pergamos – the 4th and 5th century period which began under Constantine, when church and state were united and walked together.
Thyatira – the sad spiritual state of the church during the dark middle ages from the 6th to the 15th century.
Sardis – the Reformation period of the 16th to the 18th century.
Philadelphia – the great evangelistic awakening of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Laodicea – the lukewarm materialistic church of the present 20th and 21st centuries. This is characterised by Christ being outside, knocking to seek admission.
These letters have a message for every assembly of God’s people everywhere, emphasised by the Lord’s words, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” Our own assemblies should be compared with and judged against the spiritual state of these seven churches. Where the cap fits, we should wear it!
The letters have timeless personal lessons for every believer. Each one of us is an individual lampstand, and our lives are naked and open before Him.
THE LETTER TO EPHESUS
Ephesus was the most prominent city in Roman province of Asia. Galleys bringing Roman officials returned laden with produce, as Ephesus was the trading port through which the trade of the continent was processed. Huge warehouses existed, a symbol of the greatness of the trade.
Central to Ephesus was the temple of Artemis, was erected to the worship of the goddess Diana. This cult was developed from the original settlers of the area 1000 years before. The temple was the largest building in the Greek world, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It contained an image supposed to have fallen from heaven.
How The Church Began
Acts 19 tells how the church began with twelve men on fire for the Lord. For three years Paul ministered there and saw a mighty revival. Many believed, and publicly declared their faith. The heathen city bore testimony to a fallen idol; in contrast, the little church bore testimony to a risen Christ.
In Acts 20 Paul called the Ephesian elders to Miletus. With tears he commended them to God, reminding that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers “to feed the flock of God which he has purchased with his own blood.” The elders returned his love and “wept sore, fell on Paul’s neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake that they should see his face no more.” Years later when Paul wrote to Ephesus, he could speak of them being “rooted and grounded in love” (3:17). Love was still a major marker of the Ephesian church.
Now it is thirty years on, and things have changed. The furnace was still there, but the fire was burning low. The coals no longer had a bright, red lustre; but merely a dull and dying glow. Passion for Christ had cooled. Distance had crept in. John knows he is writing to a church in crisis.
1. THE INTRODUCTION (2:1)
“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.”
a) The Church
“The church in Ephesus” refers to the local company of saints gathered to the name of the Lord. The word “church” in the New Testament describes a company of people called or summoned out. The resulting gathering is a New Testament church, and when given a local designation, as here “in Ephesus,” it always refers to a local company of saints gathered in testimony to the name of the Lord Jesus. It is never used in the New Testament to describe a building, and for this reason the word “assembly” is often preferred when a local congregation is in view.
b) The Angel
“Unto the angel.” This is neither a human messenger or a literal angel. True the word could mean either of these, but the context hardly allows it. The word is used in a representative way and refers to the whole local church, not just the elders, the pastor, or those in charge. It corresponds to the lampstand, which also represents the whole church.
c) The Christ
(i) What He Was Holding. “These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand.” Christ is introduced, and the stars are seen in His grip. The right hand is the place of divine authority, security, and power.
(ii) What He Was Doing. “…who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.” This again draws attention to His priestly activity. It reminds of the activity of the Old Testament priests in the Tabernacle as they attended the lights. Walking in the midst, the Lord notes every difficulty. He sustains, reproves, and trims the lights. He elevates the wicks, removes the soot, and may remove it altogether from its position on earth.
2. THE COMMENDATION (2:1-3)
Although He will later criticize, the Lord graciously first finds much to commend. In many respects this was a model assembly with a dynamic programme and a full round of meetings.
a) A Vigorous Church
“I know thy works, and thy labour and thy patience” (2). Christ’s message is based on His knowledge of their condition. The word “I know” is cognate with “I see,” and is repeated to each local church. He is quick to commend:
(i) Their Works. This was no easy-going, laid-back assembly. They were energetic, enthusiastic, and evangelistic.
(ii) Their Labour. This is a word for “toil resulting in weariness.” They were a hard working church. We need to watch that activity is not mistaken for spirituality.
(iii) Their Patience, or literally, “perseverance.” They didn’t give up and kept on going on, steadfast in the face of many pressures.
b) A Virtuous Church
“…and how thou canst not bear them which are evil” (2:2). This was a moral church demanding a high moral standard from its members. The kind of nonsense that took place at Corinth would not have been tolerated at Ephesus.
c) A Vigilant Church
“…thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars” (2:2). Although surrounded by cults, they stood firm for the truth. False apostles had fooled the Corinthians, but they could not get past the Ephesians! This was a doctrinal church, with a firm grasp of the Word of God. They knew Satan’s strategy was to get false teachers amongst them, especially at a time when the Word of God was incomplete, and people were claiming to speak directly from the Holy Spirit.
d) A Valiant Church
“…and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name’s sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted” (3). Here was unwearying faithfulness to His name in the face of constant pressure.
This was high praise indeed! Such warm-hearted commendation challenges our own hearts. Does He find in me and my assembly those features of faithfulness which He can commend?
3. THE COMPLAINT (2:4)
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” Thirty years previously Paul had commended them for their love, “Ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you” (Eph 1:15). Now 30 years on, a second generation has arisen. All the assembly activities were on track and going well. But the Lord puts His finger on the missing factor: their “first love.”
What is this “first love”? It was not so much a passion as a Person! The assembly machinery was running well, but the motivating power of Christ’s constraining love was absent. How easy it is to merely go through the motions, knowing deep inside that the essential something, our “first love”, is absent. Once, full of love for Christ, we came daily eagerly to the Word and wept over the lost. It is only when He thrills and fills our hearts that our service is acceptable. The first downward step away from Christ is not the sinking into sin, or the abandoning of doctrine, but the cooling of affection towards His Person.
Our “first love” is love shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). Ephesus had become so occupied with past accomplishments, present works and future plans that, like Martha, they forgot “the one thing needful.” They had stepped from being Mary to being Martha, and fallen into the trap of 1 Cor 13 – “it profiteth nothing.”
4. THE COUNSEL (2:5)
“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” (2:5). The counsel of this verse revolves around three words.
“Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen.” Part of any recovery must be an accurate assessment of the condition – “thou art fallen.” They were to remember the warmth of the earlier years, the wonder of their salvation, and their affection for Christ. It is this that draws the heart out to Him, and enables the things of earth to grow strangely dim in the light of His presence.
This word in the aorist tense implies a sharp break with evil. It is followed by counsel to “do the first works” – those which issued from their first love. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon, whose heart grew cold, and caused her to withdraw from her Beloved. But at last she cried, “He is altogether lovely.” Her “first works” were finding Him again whom her soul loved. A work of repentance in the heart is marked by a walk of holiness in the life.
“…or else I will come unto thee and will remove thy candlestick out of his place” (5). What a solemn warning! Christ threatened to remove the ability of the assembly to bear testimony. And so it happened. The church in Ephesus retained its vigour for several centuries, but the light of the lampstand eventually went out, and there is today no lampstand in the place where Paul laboured 3 years night and day with tears.
5. THE CHALLENGE (2:7)
“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” (2:7). The letter concludes with a ringing challenge:
a) To the Listener
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” All the letters conclude with this exhortation. The Lord saw the corporate Ephesian church in a fallen condition, and appealed to the individual.
In 1856 a young Ulster convert, James McQuilken, read George Muller’s autobiography, and joined with three others to become burdened for revival in Ulster. They had heard about the American Awakening, and longed for similar blessing at home. The first convert came in 1859, and a mighty work of God began to spread through the province. On 14 March 1859, the four friends organised a prayer meeting in Ahoghill. They had to clear the building for fear of the galleries collapsing. A few weeks later, on May 17, the whole town of Ballymena seemed to be in the grip of God’s Spirit. Many broke down and sobbed. Churches were crowded, families prayed together, all classes and ages sought the Lord, as revival spread through the province.
Revival always begins with individuals. Love is always a personal matter. We are saved one by one; we must be restored one by one. The Lord’s call is to individual believers to get back to daily devotion to Himself. There is no other way to restore a lost love and a lost life.
b) To the Overcomer
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (2:7). Who are these overcomers? According to 1 John 2:14 they are those in whom the Word of God abides, and who have overcome the wicked one. They are not “super Christians,” but true Christians who believe. John is not speaking about two categories of believers. “Overcoming” is a John word, and in his language is synonymous with Paul’s “believing.” This is evident in 1 John 5:5, “Who is he that overcometh the world? He that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God.” Genuine Christians overcome sin and unbelief, and are promised the right to the tree of life. Hence the word defines what a true believer is to be in the church. Thus the “overcomer” is a true believer who, in the energy of faith, surmounts those special difficulties in which he finds himself.
Those who “overcome” are promised “to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
(i) “The tree of life.” The overcomer is promised all that Adam forfeited in the Garden. This “tree of life,” first found in Eden, is later found in the streets of the new Jerusalem, “in the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits” (22:2).
(ii) “The paradise of God.” This word “paradise” occurs three times in the New Testament, and means “a pleasure garden.” To an oriental mind it means the sum of blessedness. It is a Persian word, also used for “forest,” (Neh 2:8), “orchard” (S. of Sol 4:13). In Lk 23:43 the dying thief was promised ‘paradise. ” Also Paul was caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor 12;2-4), the abode of deity. It is here that eternal life is to be enjoyed, and to use the symbolic language of this promise, where the tree of life is located. It is where the saints enjoy the very presence of God and the very fullness of eternal life (22:2).
The Nicolaitans (2:6)
“But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The Ephesians “hated” the deeds of the Nicolaitans, whilst those at Pergamos held them (2:15). Who were they? There is no Biblical record any such sect. Often the name gives the key to the meaning, e.g. Melchizedek, and the name here means “conquering the people.” It may thus suggest a caste which “conquered” and dominated the common people of the church, like Diotrephes, and the introduction of man-made clerical systems. Others suggest it was a licentious sect advocating indulgence of the flesh.
THE LETTER TO SMYRNA
There was something very special about the little group of believers at Smyrna. The letter is only four verses long (it is the shortest of the seven letters), yet it is saturated with the sympathy and love of the Lord Jesus Christ for His suffering saints. Apart from Philadelphia, this was the only church for which the Lord has no specific word of complaint. The letter is a soul-stirring exhortation to fearlessness and faithfulness in the midst of appalling pressure.
The name “Smyrna”
The city of Smyrna received its name from “myrrh”, a product for which it was renowned in commerce. It was extensively used in embalming, being packed between the folds of cloth wrapped round the body. In the Bible myrrh has always to do with suffering and death. It was an ingredient of the holy anointing oil of the Old Testament (Exod 20:21), and was presented to the Lord at his birth (Matt 2:11), as well as being associated with His death and burial (Mark 15:23, John 19:39). It is most significant that this suffering church should be located at Smyrna, the place of myrrh.
The City Smyrna
Now modern Izmir, Smyrna is present day Turkey’s most important sea port and the country’s second largest city. Smyrna had a long and chequered history. For many years it was a great ally of Rome, which repaid this loyalty by contributing many beautiful temples and buildings, including a theatre capable of seating 20,000 people.
This fidelity to Rome was a by-word throughout the Empire, and the Smyrneans prided themselves on it. Worship of the Roman Emperor was compulsory, and each citizen was required annually to burn a pinch of incense on the altar to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. This Christians could not do, and their refusal led to untold suffering. Failure to produce a certificate meant that the person could be accused of treason, which carried the death penalty. For the saints at Smyrna, the city of myrrh, was well named.
The authorities felt they were being reasonable in thus challenging the Christians. All they had to do was to offer a pinch of incense to prove their loyalty. Equivalent to saluting the flag. But to the Christian this meant agreeing that the Emperor was God, and at this point many preferred to die.
The Smyrna Age – Period Of Persecution
Just as the Church at Ephesus represents the first church period, the apostolic age, so Smyrna represents the following period of persecution lasting 250 years from Nero to Constantine. During this time waves of intense and bitter antagonism swept over believers throughout the whole Roman Empire, as one attempt after another was made to extinguish the spreading flame of Christianity. Professor F. F. Bruce tells of two major reasons for this intense persecution:
a) Christianity refused to shelter under Judaism. Initially Christianity was regarded as a harmless offshoot of Judaism. It was thus protected, enjoying the same privileges of religious liberty as the Jews, who were excluded from such things as Emperor worship. But Paul and others drew a clear line between Christianity and Judaism, so that by Nero’s time the new faith stood exposed as an independent movement not recognised by law – it was a religio illicita.
b) Refusal to associate with idolatry. Almost all normal social life in those days was bound up with idolatrous practices. Jews were excused from these, but Christians were not, and their refusal to associate with such practices was interpreted as being disloyal and anti-social. This led to great misunderstanding and violent antagonism. Surely people would not meet by themselves unless they had something to hide! Rumours of cannibalism and vice amongst the believers circulated. It seemed that such a crowd of wretches was worth exterminating, and Nero, amongst others, exploited this ill will to the full.
Christians were thus loathed with the following results:
a) They had no protection from the authorities (religion illicita)
b) They withdrew from idolatrous practices and thus from normal social intercourse
c) They were “atheists” since they worshipped no visible God
d) They began to persecuted by the police after AD 64, and thus met in secret. They would not met in secret unless they had something to hide.
e) Rumours of cannibalism and incest circulated.
All agreed such a crowd of wretches was worth exterminating.
The Fire of Rome
Like the Great Fire of London in 1666, this likely started by accident. However, Nero was suspected of starting it and looked around for a scapegoat. The Historian Tacitus records how Nero “found and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty a class of men loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Those who confessed themselves to be Christians were arrested and convicted. Their death was made a matter of sport. They were covered in animal skins, and torn to pieces by dogs, or fastened to crosses and set alight to serve as torches at night. Nero offered his garden for the spectacle, and mingled with the crowd, dressed as a charioteer mounted on his chariot.”
This Smyrna age of church history, the persecution period, lasted 250 years from Nero until Constantine, and was filled with constant hostility to Christianity. As Emperor succeeded Emperor, so waves of persecution rolled over the growing church. Domitian, Trajan, Hadrian, and others were each associated with blood-stained efforts to stamp out this new “sect”. Because they refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, Christians were looked on as dangerous revolutionaries, and under succeeding Emperors were burned and beaten, hanged and crucified, thrown to the lions and tortured to death. Church buildings and copies of the Scriptures were destroyed. In vain did the Christians protest that they were neither unpatriotic nor disloyal. But it was argued that it was easy for them to prove their loyalty. They had only to burn a pinch of incense and thus acknowledge Caesar as “dominus et deus noster” – “our Lord and our God.” It was at this point that many preferred to die.
In A.D. 155 Polycarp, a friend of the Apostle John, was martyred for his faith at Smyrna by being burned to death at the age of 86. The police Captain wanted to spare him, saying “What harm is there in saying Caesar is Lord?” The proconsul of Asia himself tried to persuade him, saying “Swear by the divinity of Caesar. Take the oath and revile Christ, and I will let you go free.” Polycarp’s reply has stirred the hearts of believers through the ages. “Fourscore and six years have I served Him, and He hath done me no wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme the King who saved me.”
In Marius’ reign the churches in Gaul suffered terribly. Neither age nor sex was spared. History tells of 90 year old men, and young boys of 14 being slaughtered. One outstanding heroine was a slave girl, Blandina. Her friends feared for her constancy under trial, but her faith was so steadfast that her tormentors doubled their efforts to break her and confess the evil practices at the meetings of Christians. Her steadfast reply was “I am a Christian, and there is no wickedness among us.”
Perpetua and Felicity
As persecution spread across to N. Africa, it affected all classes. Perpetua was a high-born society matron, Felicity a mere slave girl. Yet when they stood hand in hand facing death in the arena, they bore witness to the way in which faith in a living, risen Christ makes social and society distinctions irrelevant.
The first 2½ centuries were of consistent hostility towards the Christian church. Nero was followed by Vespasian, then his son Titus. Titus followed by his brother Domitian who assumed divine honours and liked to be styled “dominus et deus noster” (our Lord and God).
It is interesting that the emperor’s own cousin Falvius Clemens, consul in AD 95 and his wife Domitilla, Domitian’s niece, were put on trial for “atheism.” Clemens was executed and Domitilla banished. Hence Christianity was no longer confined to the lower ranks of society as in Nero’s time. Clemens and Domitilla’s sons were designated by Domitian as heirs to the throne, and they were being raised in a Christian family.
For us the letter is a challenge to our easy-going and often cheap Christianity. It costs many of us so little to be Christians. Yet, in lesser but equally important ways we are constantly called upon to stand alongside the Smyrnean believers and bear witness to faith in a risen Christ. At school. At work. In our families. Those who do so will find in some measure the truth of Paul’s warning that they that “live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12). The four verses of the letter bring four delightful presentations of the risen Lord Jesus Christ.
1. THE LORD OF RESURRECTION (2:8)
“And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.”
Christ reveals Himself to His people according to their need. A sinful Peter discovers His scorching holiness and cries out “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). A seeking Mary in her lonely sorrow hears His tender revelation in the single word “Mary!” So these suffering believers at Smyrna have their eyes and hearts lifted to see a new revelation of the risen Christ.
This was the message to the Hebrews. They, too, were under pressure. Their faith was beginning to waver, and they were tempted to “go back”. The writer’s answer to their problem was to turn their eyes upon Jesus, His glory, majesty, deity, sympathy, and humanity. And it is the same today. Nothing strengthens a hard-pressed believer like a new vision of his risen Lord.
a) Creator and Consummator
“The First and the Last.” The suffering Smyrneans are reminded that their Lord is the God of all eternity. As “the First”, He was before all things, the Creator. As “the Last” He is the Consummator, in whom everything will have its ultimate conclusion. He predates everything, and is there when all else has passed away.
b) Redeemer and Conqueror
“…which was dead, and is alive.” Here is his Humanity. They are reminded that the Eternal One became incarnate and “was dead.” Even He became subject to the rejection and persecution of man.
Now He “is alive”! The cross is vacant, the tomb empty. He occupies His throne, and lives to make intercession for His people. Having experienced the weakness of humanity, He sympathetically understands their fears and their sufferings, as the shadow of death was their daily companion. The One who triumphed over death and hell thus sends this personal message of encouragement. The present may be bitter, but the future is bright with the prospect of ultimate victory and glory.
2. THE LORD OF OBSERVATION (2:9)
“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.” (Note that the words “thy works” are not in the best MSS.)
The all-seeing Lord was fully aware of the severity and the source of the pressures on the believers.
a) Pressures from Without
The church was suffering under:
(i) Pressure of Adversity. “thy tribulation.” The Greek word indicates severe pressure, like a grain crushed in a mill, or a winepress forcing out wine. The Smyrnean believers were going “through the mill”, and may well have been tempted to think the Saviour had forgotten them. To them He says “I know…” He had observed it all. More than that, He was able to understand their heartache and pain. He, too, had been crushed and bruised. What sympathy and strength to afflicted saints! He knows every tear and heartache. He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb 4:14).
Does Jesus care when my heart is pained
Too deeply for mirth and song;
As the burdens press, and the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?
O yes, He cares! I know He cares,
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary
I know my Saviour cares.
(ii) Pressure of Poverty. “thy poverty.” Again, the Lord had observed their situation. Many had lost everything for their faith, as Christians could not belong to the trade guilds because of their pagan associations. The world had robbed them of their possessions and said “Just think of all you miss!” But the Smyrneans knew better. They had treasure in heaven. They knew that all that the world could give was nothing compared to the riches of belonging to Christ. It is against the background of poverty that Christ declares, “thou art rich.”
A Christian who had given away much in earlier years, was rendered destitute by economic collapse. He was asked, “Aren’t you sorry now that you gave it all away.?” “Oh, no,” he replied, “That is all I really have!” The saints at Smyrna had lost whatever material possessions they once owned, but in the sight of the Lord they were wealthy. They had invested in “futures”!
b) Pressures from Within
“I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” Strong language! Such were likely Jews by birth, but not in spiritual reality. They were fanatically religious, but did not know God. The Smyrnean believers were thus caught between the hammer of heathen opposition and the anvil of religious persecution from antagonistic Jews.
They could say nothing too bad (“blasphemy”) and do nothing too cruel (“tribulation”). “Blasphemy” here means railing, the insults from neighbours. But in a deeper sense, insults against the believers were insults also against Christ, and were thus “blasphemy.” In those days all kinds of lies were circulated about believers.
Down through the ages true believers have been subjected to intense religious persecution. In early days it was the Jews who persecuted the disciples. Later it was often organized religion persecuted the true body of Christ, as the history of the Inquisition, the Waldensians, the Huguenots, and millions of others indicate. In such circumstances Satan wears his true colours. No wonder the Holy Spirit refers to the opponents of the believers as the “synagogue of Satan.”
3. THE LORD OF CONSOLATION (2:10)
“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.”
They are told they “shall have tribulation ten days,” referring, perhaps, to ten major periods of suffering which would sweep over the church during the Smyrna age. That soon to be intensified fiery trial is viewed in three-ways: from the human, the Satanic, and the Divine perspectives. Each perspective emphasises a different aspect of human suffering – its misery, it’s mystery, and its ministry.
a) At the Human level – its Misery
“Fear none of those things which you will suffer.” We naturally shrink from suffering. The Lord encourages His own to face boldly the hatred and opposition of the world. He has promised grace sufficient for every need. He does not give martyr grace until martyr time.
b) At the Satanic level – its Mystery
“Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison.” This traces the suffering here back to its source, “the devil,” literally, “the accuser.” Suffering and tribulation are here attributed to Satan. He is allowed to cast them into prison. Satan detests the church and has been its enemy since the moment of Pentecost. Satan knows well enough the high dignity and high destiny of the church. He sees it enthroned in heavenly places with Christ. When he is hurled from heaven to earth, from earth to the abyss, and from the abyss to the lake of fire, the church will still be enthroned on the heights from which he fell.
c) At the Divine level – it’s Ministry
God never permits the saints to suffer without a cause. In this case there are two comforting factors which show God sovereign even in Satan’s permitted onslaughts on the saints.
(i) The Divine Reason for the Trial – “that you may be tried.” This has its background in the art of the metal maker in the fire treatment of metallic ore. There would be the pressure of false accusation, persecution, civil and religious charges, pressure to renounce their faith. On the other side of the trial, the church would be stronger than ever. Tertullian, who lived in the midst of persecution said, “The blood of the marked as is the seed of church.”
(ii) The Divine Restriction to the trial – “You will have tribulations ten days.” It is not possible in history to find these “ten days” which may refer to either a limited period of time, or the ten persecutions under the various emperors over the next 250 years, the time period of history pictured by Smyrna. The point is that the exact period is marked. The Lord knows in advance what is going to happen to His own. Why should they fear, since He has conquered every situation? Every ounce of suffering has been measured out by His great hand of love.
“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” The final triumph was to be twofold, for Satan is never allowed to win in the end.
a) Sharing in Christ’s Cross (2:10b)
“Be thou faithful unto death.” The Lord reminded the church that he himself was once dead. Most of us have wondered if, faced with the prospect of a slow and lingering death as a reward for faithfulness to Christ, we would have this strength to endure to the end. We read of the terrible things that have been done to God’s people, and wonder whether we should have the courage and faith to hold out. The only way is to live for Christ today. That is the only way to guarantee that we would be able to die for Christ tomorrow.
b) Sharing in Christ’s Crown (2:10b-11)
“I will give you a crown of life.” This is not a promise of life, but a crown of life. Eternal life is a gift of grace, and not something to be earned as a reward for faithfulness. The “crown of life”, on the other hand, does not belong to all, but to those whom He chooses to suffer with Him, even unto death. Those who suffer with Him shall reign with Him. In the Smyrnean games the main feature was the stephanos or “crown.” This “crown of life” is for all faithful believers. Not all would die a martyr’s death, but all would share the victory of Christ. Faithful testimony evidences the reality of divine life they already possessed, and the crown would reflect their faithfulness to Christ whether in life or death.
4. THE LORD OF EXHORTATION (2:11)
“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”
a) The Timelessness of the Message
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” This message of individual responsibility updates the letter to our 20th century. It is a ringing challenge to believers of all ages who are prepared to listen to the Spirit of God speaking through His Word.
b) The Triumph of the Message
“He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” The final outcome of a life lived in obedience to the Holy Spirit is a personal guarantee that in the Day of Judgement we have nothing to fear. We “shall not be hurt of the second death” because Christ passed through the gates of death and now lives forever, indwelling all who trust in Him. He is able to give victory in suffering, no matter how severe that suffering may be.
At the time of the Roman persecution a small boy was led out with his father to be given to the wild beasts in the arena. As the wild animals approached, the little boy said, “Will it hurt, Father?” Placing his arm around his son’s shoulder, the father, looked off into the invisible and replied, “Perhaps for one swift moment, but he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” May God help us to be fearless and faithful, to have opened ears to hear His Spirit’s voice, and eyes to look off into the invisible to see Him who promises a crown of life for faithfulness to His Name.
Does this letter to Smyrna seems remote and irrelevant to Christians in our easy-going materialistic society? It is as though it was written to a church on another planet! What, after all, do we know of suffering? Christianity is even protected by laws of state. Yet the Lord Himself said “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33), and godly men and women of all centuries have found that attempts to live for Him have met with resistance and opposition.
To believers of every generation this letter brings a timeless message of comfort and challenge. We may not be led out to be burned at the stake, or be stood blindfolded in front of a firing squad. But our Adversary, the Devil, has other equally effective ways of opposing all who would “live godly in Christ Jesus.” The extent to which we are prepared to bear reproach for His name in our privileged society is the measure in which we would be faithful in a fiery trial of fiercer persecution. Could God trust me to be faithful, as He trusted the Smyrnean believers of 2000 years ago?
THE LETTER TO PERGAMOS
The devil had made a frontal attack on the church at Smyrna. The dark days of the Smyrna age had been designed to stamp out Christianity altogether. Thousands during this period laid down their lives for the Saviour rather than deny His Lordship.
In spite of tremendous pressure, the young vibrant church grew constantly. It seemed nothing could stop its progress.
A Change Of Tactics!
From seeking to destroy the church by persecution, Satan changed tactics to destroy it by corruption. Persecution was replaced by patronage and popularity. The Roaring Lion became an Angel of Light. Being a Christian was no longer a reason for fear, rather it was a cause of pride. Instead of living in opposition to each other, Church and State walked hand in hand. In fact, “Pergamos” means “married,” and the name of this church tells its character.
Both the church at Pergamos and the Pergamos age of church history were characterized by compromise between the world and the church. It is a spirit which still finds easy entrance into the lives of many of God’s people today.
Pergamos In History
Pergamos was the capital city of Asia until the close of the first century. The city was filled with a profusion of idols, and was so given over to idolatry that twice verse 13 describes it as the place where “Satan’s throne is” or “where Satan dwelleth.”
It was an important cultural centre, famed for its library of over 200,000 volumes. It was here that a new substance, parchment, was developed for use instead of papyrus. The word “parchment” comes from “Pergamos.” It was also a famous medical centre. The physician Galen, one of the fathers of medicine, practiced there, and the most renowned of all its temples was dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of medicine, who was portrayed in the form of a serpent. Even today the serpent is the symbol of medicine, and is seen on many Medical Association badges. Have a look at the badge of our own S.A. Medical Association!
Pergamos was also a political centre. The Roman Governor resided there. He was the one man with the “jus gladii,” the “power of the sword,” authorised to put a person to death. No doubt many Christians felt the edge of that sword. Hence Christ’s words have astounding relevance to these believers. They are reminded that it is only He who can give final sentence as the Judge of all the earth. The Roman Governor wielded his sword for a time. Christ holds it for eternity.
Pergamos In Church History
Pergamos represents the third age of Church history. Ephesus represented the first apostolic age, during which time its “first love” began to cool. It was the loveless church. This was followed by Smyrna, the suffering church, which represented the following 2nd and 3rd centuries of intense persecution.
Now comes the period of Pergamos, the worldly church. This period lasted some 200 years, and saw Christianity, a persecuted minority faith, rise to become the state and empire religion. How did this happen?
The “Conversion” of Constantine
The year 312 A.D. marked the commencement of the Pergamos period. In this year Constantine was about to join battle with his rival, Maxentius, to decide who should be the next Emperor. Before the battle Constantine vowed that if he won, he would become a Christian. Tradition says he saw a vision of a cross in the noonday sky with the words written on it “By this sign conquer.” Constantine defeated his enemy at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, and was crowned Emperor.
He also became officially a Christian, and set up Christianity as the official state religion. All persecution ceased. Temples were turned into churches, and pagan priests became Christian priests. Even the army was compelled to be baptized. Christianity became popular, with the Church closely involved in the State, and vice versa. She who was to have been the Bride of Christ, became married to the world.
Thus began that era of Church history which is hailed by many historians as a great blessing, but which in reality became a curse. Caesar was now a Christian, but the people simply continued their heathen worship under the guise of Christianity. Many professed Christianity, but few possessed Christ. Numerous heathen practices were “Christianised.” e.g.
* The 25th December, the supposed birthday of the sun, was celebrated as the day of Christ’s birth.
* The worship of Isis, the “Mother of God,” was turned into the worship of the Virgin Mary.
* The Babylonian festival celebrating Ishtar, the “Queen of heaven,” was celebrated as Easter, and became a major Christian festival.
* “Pontifex Maximus.” This title, used first by the Chief Priest of the Babylonian cult, had been bequeathed to Rome, and the Roman Emperors accepted it, along with the Babylonian rites and religion. Julius Caesar was the first “Supreme Pontif,” and successive Caesars used it until 376 A.D. when the Emperor Gratian refused it and the Bishop of Rome was elevated to that position. Hence features of Christian and Babylonian religions were merged into one system.
THE LETTER TO PERGAMOS
As the Lord looked deep into the church at Pergamos, He saw much that was displeasing to Him. He thus introduces Himself as “he which hath the sharp sword with two edges.” The sword was a well known symbol of judgement, and throughout Scripture stands for the Word of God (Rev 1:16; Heb 4:16).
The cure for problems of the local church at Pergamos, of the Pergamos age, or of any local church, is the Word of God. Christ used the Word to sanctify His Church (John 17:17); to cleanse it (John 15:3), to bring it joy (John 15:11), and to bring it peace (John 16:33). Had the church at Pergamos heeded the Word of God, the long years of decline and darkness of the following Thyatiran age may well have been avoided.
For ourselves the lesson is clear. We must invite our Judge/High Priest to look deeply into our own lives, and allow the sword of His Word to perform spiritual surgery on all that would hinder holiness and bring dishonour to His Name.
1. CHRIST’S COMMENDATION (2:13)
As with the other letters, commendation precedes criticism. They are commended for:
a) Their Testing
“I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat it.” With its gross idolatry, Pergamos is described as Satan’s headquarters, and was a base for his operations. It is in the midst of such overwhelming darkness that God’s people are found.
The Lord is aware of this situation, and could say “I know…where thou dwellest.” Here we see:
(i) His Omniscience. Because He is God He knows all. His eyes are as a flame of fire, and nothing escapes their all-seeing vision.
(ii) His Experience. Because He became Man, He knows and sympathetically understands every pressure brought to bear on His children. He “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:16). He knows the heat of persecution and the drawing power of temptation.
b) Their Tenacity
“Thou holdest fast my name.” They tenaciously held fast that Name against:
(i) Social Pressure. There were those at Pergamos who had refused to accept the worship of Caesar, bowing only to the Name which is above every name.
(ii) Doctrinal Pressure. The “Name” has to do with the person of Christ, and it was during the Pergamos church period that false doctrine about His Person arose. Arius and his followers denied the personal deity of Christ, claiming that He was the greatest of all created beings, but not one with the Father (rather like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of today). The Council of Nicea was called to discuss the matters, and resulted in a firm declaration that Jesus Christ was “very God of very God,” “perfection of perfection,” and “God and man in one person.” Those who stood firm against such doctrinal error are commended.
c) Their Testimony
“…and hast not denied my faith.” Clearly there were those in Pergamos who could see how wrong it was to be so closely attached to the world. Refusal to accept the pagan rites and ceremonies introduced into the church provoked intense persecution.
One such person was “Antipas my faithful martyr, who was slain among you.” We know nothing about Antipas, other than that he was martyred for his faith. His name means “Against all,” perhaps indicating that faithfulness to “my name” and “my faith” had cost the ultimate price. How many such there are from every tongue and tribe and nation. Unknown to us, but each one remembered and detailed in heaven.
2. CHRIST’S COMPLAINT (2:14-15)
“I have a few things against thee.” In spite of tokens of faithfulness, the Lord indicated that not all was well with the church at Pergamos. Two things in particular stood out like blots on their record.
a) The Doctrine Of Balaam
“Thou hast them that hold the doctrine of Balaam.” Numbers 22-25 tells of how Balaam was hired by Balak to curse God’s people. However, four hellish attempts to curse them only resulted in four heavenly attestations of what God thought of His people. Balaam’s doctrine said “If you cannot turn God away from His people, then turn His people away from God.” To make God angry with Israel, Balaam advised Balak to corrupt them by encouraging compromise in two areas:
(i) Idolatry. “to eat things sacrificed to idols.” Israel was to have only one God, and Him only were they to serve. Balaam ensured that other gods also stole the affections and attention of His people.
(ii) Immorality. “to commit fornication.” The Israelites were encouraged to marry the beautiful heathen Midianite women. God’s curse would surely follow as the women drew their husbands to idolatry. And so it happened with devastating result as 24,000 Israelites were killed by the Lord in one day.
Pressures of idolatry and immorality were all to prevalent at Pergamos where all religious and civic life were intertwined. It was difficult for Christians to accept social engagements, or even buy meat without compromise. Some at Pergamos held that Christians had liberty to be part of a social scene which involved such idolatry and immorality.
Balaam is still alive and well. We live in a world filled with “idols” of money, power, sex, and a thousand other gods, each one of which seeks to steal our affections and dilute our effectiveness for Christ. Balaam and his devilish doctrine continue to destroy our distinctiveness as God’s people, concerned only to merge and make us part of the world around us. What persecution could not accomplish at Smyrna, Satan accomplished through the doctrine of Balaam at Pergamos – and still accomplishes today.
b) The Doctrine Of The Nicolaitanes.
“So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes.” Ephesus was commended for “hating” this doctrine (2:6). Pergamos is criticized for “holding” it.
The word “Nicolaitanes” means “conquering the people,” and may refer to the doctrine of a strong ecclesiastical hierarchy ruling over the laity. This is clerisy, and it is one of the things which God “hates” (2:6).
Sadly, this has been the history of Christianity. Men who have occupied high ecclesiastical positions have been paid to defend the faith, and ended by destroying it. As a result the Church lost its hope of Christ’s return, and Biblical simplicity was replaced by complicated church organization.
We need to resist any attempt to set up one person, no matter how godly, over God’s people. It is not God’s order.
3. CHRIST’S COUNSEL (2:16)
“Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” There is a warning sharpness in the call to “Repent – or else…!” Only one thing can avert the judgement which is to fall upon the compromisers – complete repentance and repudiation of evil. Had not the Lord rebuked Balaam through the ass’s mouth, and sent His angel sword in hand to challenge his way? “If we should judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor 11:31).
“I will come unto thee quickly.” He is not here speaking of His Second Coming, but of His personal visitation to the church, and upon those who taught and practised evil in it. Clearly that judgement did come against the whole assembly, for the church at Pergamos ceased to exist.
4. CHRIST’S CHALLANGE (2:17)
“He that hath an ear, let him hear.” The Spirit speaks to the churches, but individuals are called upon to hear. “HE that hath…let HIM hear.” The situation will not be saved by corporate recovery, but by individual responsibility and repentance.
Christ’s challenge to the church at Pergamos is directed “to him that overcometh.” It concerns two beautiful symbols.
a) “The Hidden Manna.”
“To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna.” Manna was heavenly food sent by God to the Israelites in the wilderness. It pointed to Christ, the true Bread come down from heaven (John 6:33). It was not “hidden,” but lay on the ground freely available to all.
There was, however, a golden pot of manna which was hidden in the Ark (Heb 9:4), screened from the gaze of His people. What fell on the ground every day could be enjoyed by all the Israelites, but the manna in the golden pot, “hidden” in the Ark, was for God’s appreciation alone. The overcomers will share in those deep and special appreciations of Christ. Excluded from earthly banquets at Pergamos, they were are assured of a greater feast!
b) “A White Stone.”
“…and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” In ancient aristocratic circles great houses issued to special friends “little stones of friendship,” so that they had free access to the house and a standing invitation to its hospitality. Inscribed on them was a combination of letters exclusive to that house. Many a believer at Pergamos had been made unwelcome at social functions because of his faith, and had his stone withdrawn. The White Stone may be an illusion to this custom. Christ gives a stone of friendship and promise which He will never withdraw. What assurance for those rejected by a wicked world.
“and in the stone a new name written.” What is this secret name? A secret is a mark of intimacy, and the Lord has promised that there will be this deep fellowship that is indicated by this new name. It is a secret joy and intimacy between Christ and the Overcomer, which none else can share.
Present Day Pergamos
Christ’s message to Pergamos is sharp and urgent. It has a directness not seen in the previous letters. Compromise had crept into the lives of believers, and into God’s assembly. Consciences were becoming dulled, and evil tolerated. The remedy was direct and clear: “Repent; or else…!”
We need little insight to see the obvious application to ourselves. Compromise and tolerance are the hallmarks of our easy-going society, and are reflected in our assembly and individual lives. Christ’s call to repentance is clear. To those who take up the challenge to overcome He offers the appreciation of His fellowship, and assurance of His friendship. May God give us ears to hear the Spirit’s call, and determination to obey.
THE LETTER TO THYATIRA
The rot certainly had set in. The state of the church at Pergamos was bad, but in Thyatira things were even worse. This letter, the centre of the seven, is the longest and most severe. Twice previously in His letters the Lord had counselled repentance (2:5,16), but His calls had gone unheeded. A striking change in the tone is evident in the letter, as the Lord now indicates the judgements which must inevitably follow refusal to repent.
For ourselves the message updates easily to the times in which we live. The Lord of the Churches, with eyes like a flame of fire, looks down through the centuries into our personal and assembly lives. What does He see? We ignore at our peril the loving warnings of this letter.
The “Dark Ages”
We remember that each of the churches describes a particular church period during the last 2000 years.
• Ephesus, the loveless church, was the powerful apostolic church of the 1st century
• Smyrna, the suffering church, reflected martyr period of intense suffering in the 2nd and 3rd centuries
• Pergamos, the worldly church of the 4th and 5th century reflected a period which began under Constantine, when church and state were united and walked together.
During the previous Pergamos period of church history the Church became wealthy and worldly, and was characterized by two particular evils: the doctrine of Balaam (worldly compromise), and the doctrine of the Nicolaitines (the rise of hierarchal clergy). This was followed by the next period represented by Thyatira. It well describes those centuries known as the “Dark Ages.” During this long period of approximately 1000 years the light of Christianity all but flickered out, and was not rekindled until the days of the Reformation. Roman Catholicism took control of the “Christian” world. Ordinary people were denied God’s Word, wide scale idolatry was introduced, and a religion of free grace was turned into one of works, ceremonies, and sacrifices.
1. THE ADDRESS (2:18)
“Unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write…”
Thyatira was a small thriving town located about 60 km from Pergamos. It was famous for its purple dye extracted from the shellfish of the nearby river. Lydia in Acts 16 is noted as “a seller purple, of the city of Thyatira.” It is likely that the Gospel was first brought to Thyatira through Lydia, and the assembly there was the fruit of her witness.
Two main features stood out in the background of Thyatira:
Thyatira was a city of many gods and temples, the chief one of which was Apollo. The many idols meant that nobody was very convinced about any of them. People were encouraged to tolerate them all. “Be open minded. Don’t be dogmatic!”
A great trading and banking centre, the real business of Thyatira was making money. The various businesses in the city, such as coppersmiths, bronze workers, tanners, dyers, etc, were carefully guarded, and firmly in the hands of trade guilds. These guilds were a major feature of Thyatira, and affected the life of the city in a number of ways:
(i) Commercially. The guilds operated on a “closed shop” system, and nobody could operate a business without being a member. The rule was simple: No membership – no money!
(ii) Morally. Every month a trade guild would have a great banquet. Such feasts usually degenerated into an orgy, with sinful and shameful deeds. Christians would obviously avoid such gatherings.
(iii) Religiously. Each guild was dedicated to a particular god or goddess, and meetings commenced and closed with a pouring out of an offering, identifying the guild with its idol.
This is the background against which an assembly was formed at Thyatira, and against which simple believers acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Son of God. Such a confession immediately set them apart from the commerce, morals, and religions around them.
2. THE AUTHOR (2:18)
“These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass.” This presentation of the letter’s Author, echoes the description given in 1:14-15, where He is presented as both High Priest and coming Judge. It highlights His authority, majesty, and deity.
a) His Title.
“The Son of God.” This is the only time this title is used in the seven letters. Had the church at Thyatira forgotten the holiness and majesty of the One she served? Appreciation of Christ’s person and motivation for service are closely linked. It is no different with ourselves. We need to constantly remember that we deal with One who is “the Son of God.”
b) His Eyes.
“who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire.” His penetratingly clear vision sees the heart’s hidden recesses and discovers its profoundest secrets. See also verse 23: “I am he that searcheth the reins (affections) and hearts.”
Search me, O God, my actions try,
And let my heart appear
As seen by thine all searching eye;
To mine my ways make clear.
c) His Feet.
“and his feet like fine brass.” “feet” speak of swiftness, “brass” speaks of judgement. Later He will tread the winepress of the wrath of God (chap 19) as He deals in judgement with a Godless world. But here it is swift judgement beginning at the house of God.
The Author’s message is clear. What His eyes discover His feet will trample upon. Our God is not a tyrant, but we take these warnings too lightly. He has made a way of escape from sin’s penalty and power. If believers refuse to take advantage of this, He will discipline in judgement.
3. THE APPROVAL (2:19)
“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.” Before the Lord condemns the apostates, He pauses to commend the faithful remnant. The “works” for which they are commended are listed:
* “love.” This is divine agape love. It originates in Christ and returns to Him. Not mere sentimental affection, but burning, earnest love. This still lies at the source of successful service.
* “service.” Their love expressed itself in service to God and others.
* “faith.” The Lord’s commendation of their faith can only mean that they pleased God, for “without faith it is impossible to please Him”.
* “patience.” They were able to remain quiet and tranquil in the midst of turmoil.
* “the last to be more than the first.” Here was spiritual growth and development.
What pleasure the Lord must have found in this faithful remnant! How would we stand should He say “I know thy works”? Would He see a burning love expressing itself in selfless service? Or would He see a loveless faith that has long since ceased to please Him, and godly patience eroded by the pressures of a godless and careless society?
Dr Barnhouse records the story of Marie Durand who was imprisoned in a tower in France during the days of fierce antagonism to Christians. Being a noblewoman, her captors were ordered not to molest her, but others were not so protected, and endured the horrors of persecution. Madame Durand comforted the anguished girls robbed of their honour, and delivered them of their captors’ children. Daily through the years she went to the wall of the prison, and with her bare hand rubbed the rock until the word “Resistez!” was graven in the stone. It was a word already graven in her heart by the risen Christ. Love, service, faith, and patience combined to constrain this remarkable woman.
From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
From all that dims thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.
– Amy Carmichael
4. THE ACCUSATION (2:20-23)
“Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee.” Something had gone radically wrong in Thyatira. In the strongest possible language, the Lord calls it “the deep things of Satan” (2:24).
“The deep things of Satan.” Here was something which came from hell itself, and struck at the heart of the assembly’s testimony for Christ. Yet it was tolerated. What was it? The answer is found in 2:20, “thou sufferest that woman Jezebel.” The assembly is severely censured for tolerating her teaching
“Jezebel.” Who was she? The Lord may have been referring to a particular woman of influence in the congregation. Her real name was likely not Jezebel, but her teaching flashed back to the Old Testament character, and stands for a corrupt and powerful principle which runs through the whole Bible and which had flooded into the church. 1 Kings tells us three things about her:
a) Her Description
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Sidon, the Phonoecian High Priest of the Babylonian worship of Astarte. She married King Ahab, who was no match for her scheming abilities, and exercised a powerful influence on Israel’s moral and spiritual life.
In Thyatira, Jezebel claimed to be “a prophetess,” claiming to teach with authority, even though this was a clear contradiction of God’s Word (1 Cor 14:34,35).
b) Her Doctrine
“to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed to idols” (2:20). Jezebel introduced Israel to the seductive doctrine of compromise. Worship of Baal and the gods of the surrounding nations was given the same standing as worship of Jehovah. The direct outcome of such compromise was immorality and idolatry, as Israel turned from the pure worship of the one true God. Links with the religion of other nations also involved profitable links of commerce, wealth, and prosperity, and it was this that made idolatry so attractive and difficult to destroy.
Exactly the same situation existed in Thyatira where “Jezebel” introduced her doctrine of compromise into the church. Pure adherence to God’s Word would have undermined their wealth and prosperity. Jezebel’s way round this problem was simple. She said “There is no need to be so extreme as not to join the guilds. The Lord knows you must eat. You know an idol is nothing! You don’t need to be involved with heathen practices.”
The Doctrine of Jezebel finds its application:
(i) In History. The Church of Thyatira represents the Church of the Dark Ages from 500 – 1500 A.D., and no better figure than that of Jezebel could be used. During this time the Roman Catholic Church sought to bring the world under its domination. Christian doctrines and pagan practices were mixed together in unholy compromise, and whole heathen nations embraced in the arms of Christendom. The resulting mixture was a Church that was partly Christian and partly pagan.
(ii) In the Assembly. God’s assemblies do not escape the call to compromise. Worldly standards and methods creep in. Everywhere there is pressure to conform and tolerate unscriptural doctrines and practices.
(iii) In our personal lives. Jezebel’s devilish doctrine has wreaked havoc in the life of many a Christian who has attempted to combine worship of God with worship of mammon. Our all-seeing Lord said it can’t be done. How carelessly we risk the tramp of His feet on our lives.
c) Her Destiny
“And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not” (2:21). God’s patience with Jezebel of the O.T. was a marvel of His grace. But God would not let her seductive doctrine go unchallenged. Time eventually ran out, and the prophesied stroke of judgement fell.
So those who follow her teaching, “them that commit adultery with her” and “her children,” will come under God’s judgement. “Behold I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation” (2:22).
5. THE ASSURANCE (2:24-29)
To those who remain faithful even in times of apostasy, the Lord will add no further burden, but exhorts them to “hold fast.” Their faithfulness to Him is what concerns Him most. To those prepared to “hold fast” He promises a twofold blessing:
a) A Prospect.
“That which ye have, hold fast till I come” (2:25). The Lord’s people may wilt under pressure from corrupting and corroding influences, yet His word to our hearts is “Hold fast till I come!” How well we know from experience that it is only when eyes and affections are taken up with watching and waiting for His coming that we can effectively resist such pressures.
Note it is only “till I come.” Jezebel and her unbelieving followers will have great tribulation. How different is the believer’s prospect! “I will give him the morning star” (2:28). The Lord Himself explains this statement in Rev 22:16 “I am…the bright and morning star.” The O.T. closes with a promise of the rising Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings (Mal 4:2). The N.T. ends with an equally glorious promise to His Bride, the Church. It is the fulfilment of His words “I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am ye may be also” (Jn 14:3). The morning star shines before the sunrise. So the rapture precedes the revelation.
b) A Promise.
Here is a promise to the Overcomer, “He that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations” (2:26). Those of any age who stand fast to God’s truth, and overcome in spite of surrounding departure, will be given the privilege of ruling with Christ over the nations during His millennial kingdom. He will rule with a rod of iron, and dash the enemy to pieces as a potter breaks a vessel (2:27). In Psalm 2 these words are distinctly spoken of God’s anointed, the Lord Jesus. Here the same promise is given to the overcomer as part of his reward.
The Final Challenge.
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Again the Lord pleads with individual believers. He is coming to take us out of the world before its dark hour of “great tribulation.” We will then reign with him, sharing His glory and His authority. What a challenge to identify ourselves with those that love and serve Him now. To “hold fast till I come.” And to find at the end of the day it will be worth it all.
THE LETTER TO SARDIS
The message to the church at Sardis could well be entitled “Reputation versus Reality.” Here was a church that seemed alert and alive. But the all-seeing Lord of the churches knew better. As He looked deep into the heart of the assembly, His verdict cut across all outward reputation: “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” He saw that the form was retained, but the heart was gone. His name and truth were held, but He Himself was forgotten. Such was Sardis – decent and respectable, but barren and lifeless towards God.
Significantly, there is no word of commendation for the assembly as a whole. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, and even Thyatira, had that which the Lord saw and commended. But this letter, like that to Laodicea, is heavy with censure. Commendation is reserved for the few faithful individuals who stood apart from the rest and refused to defile their garments.
Like the other six churches, Sardis can be looked at in four different ways:
a) Historical. The letter describes the spiritual state of an actual historical church which existed in the ancient city of Sardis.
b) Prophetical. Just as Thyatira represents the long 1000 year period of the “Dark Ages,” when the Roman Catholic Church dominated the world religious scene, so Sardis represents the period flowing from the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and the great reformers surged forward on a high spiritual plane, but the spiritual movement which followed stopped short of return to apostolic teaching and practice. Instead, it developed into “Protestantism,” characterized in the main by division and deadness.
c) Practical. The letter carries stern warnings for assemblies of every age. How easy to have “a name,” to apparently have all the machinery moving, and yet be “dead.” Sardis had an outward reputation as an “alive” church. It seemed so active and committed, yet the Lord exposed its true state.
d) Personal. Loud personal lessons echo down through the centuries and into our own individual lives as we read this short letter. What warnings! What challenges! As never before we need ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
1. THE CITY
There is little in the small provincial town of Sardt in modern day Turkey to indicate the glory and fame of the Sardis of 2000 years ago. It was, however, a very significant city, with a glorious history which provides the backdrop to the letter.
a) Its Fame.
Sardis was famous throughout all Asia Minor, and its glorious history glowed with the names of great men and their deeds. Croesus, Aesop, Midas, and Cyrus were but a few of the great names connected with the city.
b) Its Fortune.
Sardis was a rich city. Situated in a fertile valley at the cross roads of several important trade routes, wealth came easily to the traders and bankers who lived there. Not for nothing had Sardis gained a reputation as a major commercial centre. The earliest known coins, supposed to come from the legendary King Midas, were found there.
c) Its Fortress.
Sardis had tremendous military importance. Standing on top of a sheer cliff some 330 metres high and seemingly inaccessible, it was known as “Sardis the Impregnable.” But at least twice in its history this sense of security had been responsible for disaster. In 549 B.C. the city was attacked by the Persians under Cyrus. After besieging the city for two weeks, Cyrus offered a reward to the first man to scale the cliff and enter the city. One of his soldiers saw a Sardian drop his helmet over the wall, and watched carefully as he climbed down to retrieve it. Thinking “If a man can come down, a man can go up there,”, he took a group of his comrades and scaled the cliff by night. Arriving at the walls, they found them unguarded with the garrison asleep, and had no difficulty entering the city. Nor did the inhabitants learn their lesson, for history repeated itself when Alexander the Great entered in 334 B.C. using similar tactics.
For all its seeming security, Sardis fell. Its reputation as an impregnable fortress failed to protect it. This is the warning background to the letter.
2. THE CHRIST
“These things saith he that hath the seven spirits and the seven stars” (3:1).
The symbols of the Spirits and stars echo Christ’s revelation of Himself in chapter 1. The “seven spirits” refer to the sevenfold character and completeness of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:1,2; Rev 1:4,20). The “seven stars” are also interpreted in 1:20, and are the “messengers,” or leaders, of the churches. The Lord of the churches holds these seven stars in His hand, and controls by His Spirit every aspect of the church’s ministry.
A similar picture is drawn for us in 1 Corinthians 12, where the Church is presented as a human body directed by a governing spirit or mind. When a person’s human spirit is in control of his body, he can do amazing things. He can fix an engine, play the piano, kick a ball, or perform intricate surgery. However, when that human spirit ceases to be in control of some part of the body, e.g. after a stroke, the result is withering and paralysis of the affected part.
The spiritual parallel is clear. The Holy Spirit should govern and direct “the Church which is His body.” Surely it is time to stop bemoaning the withered and paralysed state of God’s people, and acknowledge again the absolute sovereignty of God’s Spirit in our assembly and personal lives.
3. THE CHURCH
The Lord’s verdict is stated in a single sentence: “I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead” (3:1). This was certainly true of Sardis the city, which lived in the glow of the glorious names of its past history.
The church at Sardis also had a name. Long past traditions, “good old days” of spiritual progress and power had given them a name as an active and alive group of believers. But the Lord of the Churches had seen beyond the shell of outward reputation. He had looked for inward reality, but found instead a barren coldness. The diagnosis is declared in a single word – “dead”!
We, too, have the powerful privilege of godly traditions. We have been blessed with a Protestant and evangelical heritage. We owe an incalculable debt to such men as Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Darby, etc, all of whom left their stamp on generations of God’s people, guiding them back to the Spirit’s power and authority of the Scriptures.
But let’s face it! It is all too easy to feel secure and complacent in the godly traditions inherited from past spiritual giants, as though their spirituality conferred divine approval on us.
Herein is the trap! We preserve the past and miss the present. We confuse activity with vitality. A deep chasm exists between our reputation and what we know to be the sad reality. Outwardly we seem alive, yet inwardly there is a deadening coldness known only to the omniscient Lord who says, “I know they works…” We need our own individual and collective Reformations, to acknowledge again the claim of God’s Son, the power of God’s Spirit, and the authority of God’s Word on our lives.
4. THE COUNSEL
Having made the diagnosis, in verse 2 the Great Physician applies the remedy contained in two words of counsel.
a) A Word for their Welfare.
Here are five compact capsules prescribed for their welfare.
(i) “Be watchful.” This word has the force of “Wake up!” and would ring loudly in the ears of the assembly at Sardis as they remembered how the city had been captured through lack of vigilance. They needed to wake up to their danger. And is it any different with ourselves? God is never fooled by outward appearances and programmes. Let us have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying, to be stirred from slumber by His Word.
(ii) “Strengthen the things which remain.” We, too, need to look at those areas in our lives which have become slack through neglect. Do our times alone with God’s Word need strengthening? Or our prayer life? Have we become weak in our use of our time, talents and treasures for His glory?
(iii) “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard.” A look back to earlier and better days would remind them of the joy with which they had received the Word, and when God’s Son and God’s Spirit ruled their lives. Why do we forget what Christ has done for us? None backslides in a day. The rot of spiritual neglect takes the roots long before it shows in the leaves. Yet to look back and “remember” the joy of those former days is a powerful antidote to spiritual lethargy.
(iv) “Hold fast.” Hebrews 2:1 says: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip.” At Sardis they had slowly let the precepts, principles and priorities of God’s Word slip, and were in danger of being overtaken by cold lifeless orthodoxy.
(v) “Repent.” To five of the seven Churches the Lord says “Repent!” We know what this means when spoken to the unsaved. But believers also need to repent! There are attitudes and actions to be put right. There are things which have inwardly held us bound for years, and only a veneer of outward reputation has hidden the reality of inward barrenness. To such of all ages the call is to “Remember…and repent!” Repentance is most effective when the heart is stirred in the shadow of the cross and filled with remembrance of the matchless worth and work of our precious Saviour!
b) A Word for their Warning
“If therefore thou wilt not watch, I will come upon thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” (3:3). The picture here is of a centurion who sets guard, and then visits his men on watch. If he found a sentry asleep at his post, he would cut off a piece of his tunic which would be presented next day as evidence at the tribunal. How solemn to have our slothfulness discovered! Or to be like Samson, who was not aware that his power, privilege, and sense of God’s presence had gone until it was too late.
5. THE COMFORT
“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” (3:4). All at Sardis was not lost, and “a few names” were comforted and warmly commended for their faithfulness. This word of comfort relates to:-
There is a significant emphasis on “names” in the letter. The church had a name to live but was dead. There were a few names that did not defile their garments. The overcomer would not have his name blotted out, but his name would be confessed before the Father and His angels.
In Sardis the “big names” were those great names of history which had made the city famous. But to Christ the “big names” were those of faithful believers who walked humbly with their God and kept themselves and their garments unspotted from the world.
“Garments” speak of character in Scripture. Those believers who had refused to be associated with the defiling practices of the city are promised “they shall walk with me in white.” The reference here is to the triumphal procession of a Roman general, whose friends, clothed in white garments, walked in procession with him. Christ promises they will be in His triumphal procession, clothed with the whiteness of His righteousness. They had not defiled their garments of grace. He would give them garments of glory. They had preserved their integrity here, and would walk with Him there, clothed in robes made white by the blood of the Lamb.
What a profound promise: “They shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy”! We readily acknowledge “He is worthy,” but to think that there are those of whom Christ says “They are worthy”! Surely this should be our burning desire and ambition, to hear such commendation from His lips.
6. THE CHALLENGE
These stirring promises to the overcomers are stated against the background of the culture and life at Sardis. The people loved their public festivals. “Worthies” would be fêted, and paraded in the finest clothes, while a list of their achievements was announced to the spectators.
Few of the despised believers bearing faithful witness to Christ can have known such public acclaim. Now they are challenged to look forward to an infinitely greater day when all earthly verdicts will be reversed. Those who live for Him now are well compensated by His glorious promises.
a) A Glorious Garment.
“He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment” (3:5). This “white” is glittering white, recalling the Lord’s appearance on the mount of Transfiguration. It is a reflection of the righteousness Him of whom Psalm 104:2 says, “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment.” What whiteness in glory then for those who keep themselves morally now.
b) A Glorious Name.
“I will not blot out his name out of the book of life” (3:5). Most cities kept a roll of all citizens born in the city. Those who were important were honoured by having their names emblazoned and embellished in the register. Those who brought shame on the city had their names erased. Doubtless many a believer had his name erased from the citizens’ roll.
This verse does not teach the possibility of being saved and then lost. It is a challenge to those who have a name to live, that they should pay more attention to their popularity in heaven. It is the name written there that matters.
c) A Glorious Confession.
“I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (3:5). What a day when Christ owns us before our Father’s face! How can I be ashamed of Him now!
Ashamed of Jesus! – Yes I may,
When I’ve no guilt to wash away,
No tear to wipe, no good to crave,
No fears to quell, no soul to save.
Till then – nor is my boasting vain –
Till then I boast a Saviour slain!
And oh, may this MY glory be,
That Christ is not ashamed of me!
THE LETTER TO PHILADELPHIA
The assembly at Philadelphia was very special to the Lord, and the letter shines with the brightness of a new age. There is much here for our personal encouragement, and our hearts will be stirred as we study this letter. In the eyes of the world the small group of believers at Philadelphia was insignificant. They had “little strength,” and the world viewed them as feeble. But the Lord saw them as faithful and very precious. His all-seeing eyes found nothing to criticize, and He make them the subjects of some of the most beautiful promises in the New Testament.
1. THE AGE
Just as Sardis came out of Thyatira, so the Philadelphia age came out of Sardis. Sardis was typical of the dead and divided Protestantism which followed the Reformation. Philadelphia, however, was marked by vitality. In this church age during the 18th and 19th centuries, God’s power was mightily evident as evangelical revivals swept over Europe and the British Isles, spreading across to America. These revivals in turn produced the modern missionary movement.
It was this movement of the Holy Spirit that touched people like William Carey, an English shoe cobbler. In 1792 he preached his famous sermon “lengthen thy cords, strengthen thy stakes,” and was so burdened by his own message that the following year he set sail for India as the first foreign missionary. The Lord had said, “I will set before thee an open door,” and Carey was followed by other young people who set out in faith for lands where Christ was unknown. Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone, Henry Martin, and thousands of others gave their lives to Africa, China, India, South America, and the far-flung islands of the sea, all for the sake of Christ.
Two major factors lay behind the mighty missionary movement of this Philadelphian age:
a) The widespread printing of the Bible in the language of the people, and the tendency to obey it literally. Hence when Carey read the Lord’s command, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,” he obeyed it.
b) The rediscovery of many great Biblical truths relating to Christ’s Second Coming. These truths had lain dormant since the third century, but when revived, contributed to a consecrated and separated church determined to prepare herself for her Lord’s return.
Lets face it! We have become so familiar with these truths that they have lost their cutting edge. There is no shortage of Bibles (I counted nine on my own shelves!), but even in spiritual matters familiarity breeds contempt, and there is tremendous need to rediscover the freshness of God’s Word, and for literal obedience to its demands. Sadly, the great prophetic truths relating to Christ’s return, have become points for academic debate, rather than motivating spurs to urgent and selfless service for the soon returning Master.
2. THE ADDRESS
The city of Philadelphia, founded only 189 years B.C., was located on an imperial road some 50 kilometres from Sardis. Situated near the upper end of a broad valley, it was the door to a fertile tract of land which was the source of its prosperity.
Three things stand in the historical background of this city:
a) A Faithful City
The city was built by King Atallus in memory of an older brother who gave his life for that king. The name Philadelphia means “brotherly love,” and the very existence of the city was a testimony to one who had died. It was known as “the faithful city,” and down through the ages, in spite of many efforts to change its name, it always reverted to “Philadelphia.” When the Roman Empire broke up, this was one of the last cities to fall, and only did so because it was betrayed from within as a result of internal division.
b) A Fruitful City
The city was a great centre for the wine trade and was situated in a very fertile and fruitful area. Its principal deity was Bacchus, the god of wine.
c) A Fearful City
The city was in an area frequently affected by severe earthquakes, causing constant fear. Often, when the people reckoned that an earthquake was imminent, they would go out of the city, and camp in the nearby fields. As a result there was a lack of stability and permanence about the city. This is the background to verse 12: “he shall go no more out.”
3. THE AUTHOR
As in the other letters, the Lord’s description of Himself relates to the spiritual condition of the church to which He is writing. The description in verse 7 bears a three-fold testimony to the Author.
a) He is Holy
“He that is holy.” This is more than a description of Christ’s nature; it is a Name that expresses His character. He is holy in both His Name and His nature. “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy” (Isaiah 57:15).
It is against the background of Philadelphia with its wine trade and drunkenness that He introduces Himself as “He that is Holy.” To what degree was the assembly reflecting His holiness in the sordid society all around? “As He who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy…” (1 Peter 1:15).
b) He is True
“He that is true.” “True” is one of John’s favourite words. It means genuine. Hence to John He is “the true light” (John 1:9); “the true bread” (John 6:36); and “the true vine” (John 15:1). His true nature answers to His holy Name. How many of His faithful servants down through the years have been able to testify in life and in death that He is “true”!
c) He is Sovereign
“He that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (3:7). The key is a symbol of absolute power and sovereignty. To understand the picture, we must turn back to Isaiah 22, where Assyria had come against Israel. God gave the people a definite call to repentance, but their attitude was “let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die” (Is 22::13). At the time Shebna was treasurer over God’s house, and God announced his downfall. Instead, He chose Eliakim, saying “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Is 22:22). Eliakim, as God-appointed royal steward held the keys of power, with unchallenged authority to open and close.
So Christ is absolute Sovereign. He has the keys of exclusive power in heaven, in earth, and in hell. “All power is given unto me….” (Mat 28:18). He alone is capable of handling the keys of every situation. Often in our lives we face many closed doors. What comfort to know He has the key to every one.
God holds the key of all unknown,
And I am glad:
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he trusted it to me,
I might be sad.
What if tomorrow’s cares were here
Without its rest?
I’d rather He unlocked the day,
And, as the hours swing open say,
My will is best
4. THE ASSEMBLY
“I know thy works…” (3:8). The entire panorama of Assembly testimony was before the Lord. The emphasis is not on their orthodoxy or zeal, but on their reflection of Him who is holy and true.
“Behold, I have set before thee an open door” (3:8). This reference to “an open door” is explained by the local geographical situation. Philadelphia was at the upper end of a long valley which opened back from the sea, and was the door to the large central plateau of Asia Minor.
So Christ set before the assembly an open door. As the Good Shepherd He goes before, and opens the door and the way for His children, just as He did with Abraham, Joseph, Abraham, Daniel, and has continued to do for multitudes of believers down through the ages. How glad we are for the open doors of privilege and opportunity He places before His children. He still goes before and none can shut the door upon His purposes for His people.
The Lord gives three reasons why He sets before them this open door:
a) “Thou hast a little strength.”
The Lord knew them to be a feeble and insignificant minority group in the sight of the world. They could have been “strong,” linked to the religious and political systems of the day, but they had chosen instead to place their confidence in His power and ability. They had learned that His strength is made perfect in weakness.
b) “…and hast kept my word.”
Satan corrupts the Word, critics destroy it, and the world despises it. But the true believer loves it, pours over it, and obeys it. This is the essential hallmark of the genuine believer. “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:3).
How do we “keep” God’s Word? It implies much more than a lax routine reading of “a portion” as a matter of duty. Or even the study of the Word for sermon preparation. It all revolves round “If a man love me, he will keep my words” (John 14:23). Our obedience is the acid test of reality.
c) “…and hast not denied my name.”
A child who bears his father’s name is careful not to reflect badly on it by his behaviour. So the Philadelphian believers were careful to preserve Christ’s Name and character before an ungodly world. Their faith and obedience were well noted by the Lord who warmly commended them.
Could He say the same of us? How often we deny His name by what we say and do. Or just as often by what we fail to say or do. May God help us to follow the godly example of these early believers whose lives so vividly reflected the Lord’s name and nature.
5. THE ANTAGONISM
“Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not” (3:9). A basic law of physics states “To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So it is in the spiritual realm. Godly lives never flow easily. Such was the case at Philadelphia, where the bitterest enemies of the Gospel were the Jews, described as “the synagogue of Satan.” The origin of the opposition is identified as Satan.
In different ages Satan’s antagonism has employed different methods, but always with the same objective of destroying the personal and collective testimony of God’s people. For most of us the opposition will be “soft,” and few will be called upon to die for their faith. We may instead have to battle with temptation, popularity and materialism, enemies which can be every bit as effective as open persecution in nullifying our testimony. Either way, it is still the same antagonism from the same age-old Satanic source.
6. THE ASSURANCE
In commending the believers for their faithfulness, the Lord gives them a three-fold assurance.
a) He Keeps
“I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation” (3:10)
This is better translated, “I also will keep thee out of the hour of the trial,” and refers to the Great Tribulation “which shall come upon all the world, to try them that are upon the earth.” It is often discussed whether or not the church will go through the Great Tribulation, but this verse makes it very clear. They will be kept from, literally “out of,” the hour of trial. Christ will take His own out of the world before those dark days of tribulation.
Note the phrase “them that dwell upon the earth.” This phrase occurs ten times in Revelation, and refers to those who by their ambitions and actions have chosen to be linked to earth instead of heaven. It is these who shall go through the Great Tribulation.
b) He Comforts
“I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee” (3:9)
At Philadelphia the believers were misunderstood and despised. They were under constant attack by the “synagogue of Satan.” But one day they would be vindicated. For us, too, the message is clear. Those who belong to Christ and share His rejection now, will one day reign with Him. His enemies will be cast down at His feet, and will be humbled before God’s people.
c) He Comes
“Behold I come quickly” (3:11). As always, the promise of Christ’s coming is a warning to the careless, a comfort to the faithful. “Quickly” means suddenly and unexpectedly.
Note the personal promise here. It is the Lord Himself who will come again and deliver. In light of this, they were to “hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown.” What had they? His Word, His Name, His patience, and the promise of His coming. Sardis had let these things slip. The Philadelphian believers, and ourselves, are exhorted to hold them fast. The Judgement Seat of Christ is in view, and at stake is “thy crown.” Here is a warning to believers of all ages, lest Satan get the upper hand in our lives, and we suffer loss at the Judgement Seat.
7. THE ANTICIPATION
“Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out” (3:12). Philadelphia was frequently devastated by earthquakes which destroyed many of the buildings, including the great temples of the city. The physical world around them was temporary and insecure. In contrast, the overcomers, those who hold fast to Christ’s Word, His Name, and His coming, are promised the security of a heavenly city which is itself a huge temple. It will stand when all else has fallen.
Two things are promised to the overcomers:
a) “A pillar.”
The concordance takes us back to 1 Kings 7 where we read of the two pillars in Solomon’s temple. One was called Jachin, meaning “He shall establish,” the other was called Boaz, “In Him is strength.” The weak and tried Philadelphian believers, cast out of man’s assemblies on earth, shall be established and made strong in heaven.
“he shall go no more out.” When earthquake tremors hit the city, the population would quickly leave and go out. The promise here is that no matter how insignificant they may be now, they will be strong established pillars reflecting God’s very character in the everlasting temple that can never fall.
b) “a name.” In fact, three names are written upon the overcomer.
(i) “The name of my God.” Those who have His name RESEMBLE Him and are identified with Him. The Lord had revealed Himself as the One who is holy and true. That is His character. Those who have His Name share His character. They also REPRESENT Him, and, like ambassadors, move with the authority of His name.
(ii) “The name of the city of my God.” In this life they were called “Philadelphians,” but the city of Philadelphia was not their “home.” Their hopes and aspirations were bound up with another “city which hath foundations, whose maker and builder is God” (Heb 11:10). They were citizens of heaven, the New Jerusalem. Our home, citizenship, and inheritance are all in heaven. Why is it, then, that our motives and ambitions remain so earthbound? Let us set our affections on things above, and not on things on the earth (Col 3:1).
(iii) “I will write upon him my new name.” Several times in Revelation we read about God’s mysterious name. The overcomer at Pergamos was promised a white stone in which a “new name written, which no man knoweth” (2:17). In the last chapter we read that His name shall be in their foreheads (22:4). It may be that this “new name” will indicate new features of His character and person which we will discover throughout eternity.
Note the five occurrences of the word “my” in verse 12, “My God…my new name.” Here is promise of warm and close relationship with Him in glory. What a reward for faithfulness!
“…what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”
The message is timeless. Believers of every age are asked to balance the insecurity and instability of the world around them with its “good life” and attractions, over against the security and stability of an eternal city and an unchanging God.
One little hour to suffer with the Master,
Eternal years to walk with Him in white,
One little hour to bravely meet disaster,
Eternal years to dwell with Him in light.
THE LETTER TO LAODICEA
Strong words! In a letter charged with criticism and rebuke, and free from even a single word of commendation, the Lord directs His last message to the church at Laodicea. It is a message we ignore at our peril, for it is directed far beyond the little assembly in that city, and confronts the easy-going lukewarm Christianity of our own Laodicean age.
The tragedy which the Lord so scathingly reveals is that material self-sufficiency had blinded their eyes to dire spiritual need, and led to a spiritual complacency which the Lord shatters with some of the N.T.’s strongest language.
Nonetheless, lukewarm as they may be, the Lord of the Churches has a distinct longing for these Laodicean believers. He reaches out to them in grace with a message that could not be clearer. Restoration and revival can only follow readmission of the excluded Saviour.
1. THE AGE
This letter accurately reflects the spiritual state of the last period of Church history just prior to the Rapture. Its message is thoroughly up to date.
2. THE ADDRESS
The letter was addressed to “the angel of the church of the Laodiceans.” The city of Laodicea was founded about 250 B.C. by Antiochus of Syria, who named it after his wife Laodice. A major feature of the city was the pipe which brought water from hot springs in the nearby mountains 8 km away. This pipe is still visible today. By the time it arrived in the city the water had lost much of its heat, and was unpleasantly “lukewarm.”
Laodicea was famous as:-
a) A Commercial Centre
The black, soft wool of the area was in demand by the fashion trade throughout the Roman world. The city was thronged with bankers and wealthy businessmen, and the resultant prosperity bred a strong spirit of independence.
b) A Medical Centre
The city’s famous medical school was renowned for its treatment of ear and eye complaints. The healing properties of the eye medicine were world famous.
These historical features form the background to the Lord’s letter to the Assembly, where wealth, independence, and material sufficiency had resulted in spiritual complacency and poverty.
3. THE AUTHOR (3:14)
As with the other letters, the Lord’s description of Himself is in keeping with the vision of chapter 1, and appropriate to the spiritual state of the church He is addressing.
a) He is the Verifier
“These things saith the Amen.” What a strange name! It means “So be it,” and we are used to saying Amen at the end of a prayer (enthusiasts also say it in the middle!) The concordance takes us back to Isaiah 65:16 where twice the Lord is called the “God of Amen,” the God of “So be it,” who establishes His promises.
b) He is the Observer
“The faithful and true witness.” As “witness” He attests to what He has seen. As “faithful and true” He stands in contrast to those in Laodicea who were neither faithful nor true.
c) He is the Creator
“The beginning of the creation of God” – “the ruler of God’s creation.” Some use this verse to teach that Jesus was the first created being. Far from it! It is a statement of His Deity. It teaches that He is the source of all creation, and is thoroughly in step with Colossians 1:15 “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature,” a verse with which the Laodiceans were familiar (Col 4:15).
4. THE ASSEMBLY
Not a single word of praise! The letter must have come a shock to the Laodiceans. As far as they were concerned, they had no moral of doctrinal problems, and things had never been better. Christ, however, puts His finger on three things:-
a) Their Indifference.
“I know thy works/deeds, that thou art neither cold nor hot” (3:15). The illustration is taken from the water piped into the city from the hot springs 8 km away. The water was hot at its source, but lost its heat along the way, so that it was lukewarm by the time it arrived at the city. Thirsty travellers drinking from the fountain would be disappointed to find it nauseatingly warm, rather than refreshingly cool.
Let us not miss these lessons of lukewarmness! The word “hot” is “zestos,” “to boil”. This is the heat of the heart that beats in step with the Saviour, and responds enthusiastically to His call. How easy, like the water piped to Laodicea to lose our heat along the way!
“I would that thou were cold or hot” – “I wish you were either one or the other!” (3:15). What a strange statement! Why prefer the icy indifference of a hostile world to the lukewarmness of spiritual lethargy? The Lord is saying to the Laodiceans, if instead of being lukewarm, they were so cold that they should feel their coldness, this very feeling of their need might drive them to the true warmth. But now, in their lukewarmness, they have just enough heat to protect them from feeling the cold and their need.
What a challenge to our easy-going twentieth century Christianity! Our evangelism is lukewarm. We claim to be “evangelical,” but have long since ceased to be “evangelistic”. Our doctrine is lukewarm, and many of us hardly know or care what we believe. We have become lukewarm in our attitudes to such things as T.V., books, and magazines, often tolerating things which used to be unthinkable.
b) Their Independence
“Because you say, I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (3:17). Material wealth had blinded them to the need for spiritual riches. Their unspoken attitude was “I have need of nothing.” Not even of Christ who said “Without me ye can do nothing”!
c) Their Ignorance
“Thou knowest not…” – “you do not realize…” (3:17). The church was sadly insensitive to its own needs. How tragic! The Lord diagnoses them as being:-
(i) “wretched.” Puffed up with pride, the church was envied for her possessions, but pitied by Christ. The word carries the thought of being burdened with an insolvable problem. Their wealth and self-sufficiency was actually a burden to them, and they did not know it.
(ii) “miserable.” They had invested time and energy in the material things of life, but the expected happiness eluded them. None is more miserable than the believer who once enjoyed the things of Christ, but who has drifted back to the world.
(iii) “poor.” The word indicates extreme poverty. They had full bank balances, but were spiritual paupers.
(iv) “blind.” They doubtless considered themselves to be far-sighted businessmen, but they had no heavenly vision and saw only earthly things. May God open our eyes to see our need, and the needs of a lost world around us.
(v) “naked.” This last adjective strips them of every pretence. Clothed in the expensive high-fashion wool of Laodicea, they must have been totally shocked to hear that the Lord sees them in all the shame of spiritual nakedness.
5. THE ADVICE
“I counsel thee…” (3:18). In spite of their failure and need, the Lord still showers His love on them pleading with them to repent. His counsel for spiritual health contains three main ingredients which they were counselled to obtain:-
a) “gold tried in the fire”
This is gold of the highest value. There is nothing in the world which gold cannot buy, but Christ says that only in Him can we find “gold” to make us rich in eternal things.
b) “white raiment that thou mayest be clothed”
The white raiment speaks of Christ’s righteousness. The Laodiceans were famous for their high fashion glossy black wool, but it could never cover the nakedness of their indifference, independence and ignorance in the sight of God.
c) “anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see”
The famous Laodicean eyesalve could do much for physical sight, but only the Great Physician has a remedy for defective spiritual vision.
Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me.
Place in my hand the wonderful hey,
Than shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now, I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me,
6. THE ANSWER.
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten/discipline” (3:19) He has just issued one of the sharpest rebukes in the Scriptures, but it is motivated by pure love!
“Behold I stand at the door and knock” (3:20). Although closed out, the Lord still stands and looks with tremendous tenderness on the tragedy of the Laodiceans. Verse 20 is surely one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible.
a) His Person
“Behold I stand…” It is the Judge/High Priest of chapter 1, at whose feet John fell as dead. Yet this same One wants to relate to us as Saviour and Friend.
b) His Proximity
“…at the door” Surely such close condescension should evoke a response from our hearts. Let us not be like the Bride in the Song of Solomon who heard her Beloved knocking, but declined to let him in. Eventually she says “I rose to open to my beloved…but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone.” She opened the door – too late!
c) His Patience
“…and knock.” How like our Lord. He will knock, often loudly and persistently, but never forces an entry into our lives.
d) His Purpose
“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.” An honoured guest would be invited to have fellowship with his host at the main meal of the day.
7. THE ASSURANCE
“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” (3:21). Those who were about to be spued out of his mouth are now challenged to leave their lukewarmness and readmit the excluded Christ! Such are the overcomers, who sit at His table daily, and will one day sit on His throne eternally.
Note the two thrones and two lessons in this verse:
a) Two Thrones
(i) “My Father’s throne.” This is where Christ is at present, where He presently lives to make intercession for us.
(ii) “My throne.” He is not as yet upon His own throne. That must wait for a future millennial scene still to be established. In that day, those identified with Him here will reign with Him there.
b) Two Lessons:
(i) A Comparison with the Lord. “…even as I also overcame.” How did the Lord overcome and reach His throne? By a life of perfect patience and obedience. The overcomer’s path lies open in front of us. His footsteps are ours.
(ii) A Contrast. See the rich reward offered to the overcomer at Laodicea. We might think that the Smyrna believers, who had suffered so intensely, deserved a better reward than the overcomers at Laodicea. But the point is that the Lord understands that living for Him in a soft Laodicean society can be every bit as difficult as in the heat of persecution as at Smyrna. As we know only too well in our own lives, waging war against those things which appeal to our sinful natures, can be more exhausting and exacting than open persecution and conflict with the enemy.
“HE THAT HATH AN EAR, LET HIM HEAR….”
For the seventh and last time the Spirit’s call rings out into a world full of noises. How glad we should be that He still speaks and strives, not only with the godless Christ-rejecting world, but with His own people whose affections have been cooled by compromise. Who amongst us has time to stop and listen?
Knocking, knocking, – what! still there?
Waiting, waiting, grand and fair;
Yes, the patient hand still knocketh,
And beneath the crowned hair
Beam the patient eyes so tender,
Of thy Saviour, waiting there.