What’s With The Seven Churches?

Chapter 2:29 – Chapter 3:22

To The Loveless Church

The first of the 7 letters is addressed to the church in Ephesus (cf. Rev. 2:1-7). This was the largest city of the Roman province of Asia Minor. However, it was not the capital, but it was the commercial center because of its wonderful natural harbor. It was a free city which means there was no Roman soldiers garrisoned there. They have their own local government, and it is the only city in the western area of modern Turkey allowed to have what’s called the Asian Games which would be like the Olympics to us. It was the site of one of the 7 Wonders of the World called the Temple of Artemis; in Latin it would be Diana a love goddess. It was huge, it was four times the size of the Pantheon in Athens. It had pillars – over 127 pillars, 60 feet tall, 36 of them overlaid with gold. The floor plan was 425 feet by 220 feet and they had many cult prostitutes. It was a city in which Paul stayed 3 full years. His longest missionary effort was in this city (cf. Acts 18:18ff; 20:31). Tradition says that after Mary died, into whose care she was given to John, John moved to Ephesus and made this his home. It is also the center of “Emperor worship” now this day the the where people pinch a little incense to Caesar as a sacrifice and say, “Caesar is Lord”, and every year they’d write you a written statement that you did that.

The church in Ephesus is a very hard-working church, and has a patient endurance, and Christ sees and understands their problems as well as their strengths. The theme of the letter is really the truth that Christ is patient, therefore they need to hang in there in the midst of persecution. “I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not…” (i.e Rev. 2:2b), the word “test” here is the word to test with a view toward destruction, because these people were claiming to be apostles, but they weren’t (cf. Matt. 7:15-16 wolves in sheep’s clothing). 1 John 4:1 says we are to test every spirit; and they claim to be apostles (without reference to the 12 Apostles) as official representatives of Christianity, much like Barnabas in Acts 14:14 called an apostle, but were actually false apostles. The Lord recognizes their (church in Ephesus) patient endurance, not having grown weary in enduring hardships, but the the Lord says of them “You do not love Me as you first did…”. There have been many theories about what it means: Williams translation has it, that was their love for Christ that they had lost; the James Moffatt translation says it’s their love for each other; Herschel Hobbs says it’s their love for the lost; the Phillips translation kind of combines the three into one long translation; some say it’s referring to 2nd generation Christians (cf. Judges 2:7-10 who didn’t have the same intensity as the earlier ones; some say it’s the idea that they had a an orthodoxy but didn’t have love to match that (cf. 1 Cor. 13). We are not sure which of that it is. It may have been that in the face of all the persecutions they turned away. “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (i.e. Rev. 2:5). The believers in Ephesus have fallen, and they need to repent; not only turn from evil but do good. Here we see both sides of the Christian faith: repent and believe. The Lord removing their lampstand has the idea of temporal judgement or the 2nd Coming. We’re not really sure. the lampstand seems to refer to the blessings of Christ; the presence of Christ, or the effectiveness of Christ’s work, something like that. The need of repentance is mentioned to all these 7 churches, and most of them had major problems. In the New Testament these were apostolic churches that had major disruptions and heresies. These problems that plagued the early church are present in the church today. There is one credit though, for the believers in Ephesus; they hated the Nicolatians. Nicolaism is a heresy that compromises with pagan cultures like sexual immorality, and debauchery (wife-swapping of today’s variety). And then it says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” – This promise is for all the churches, not only to Ephesus. The right to eat of the tree of life that stands in the paradise of God is an obvious allusion to Gen. 2:9; the idyllic setting of God and Adam and Eve in a garden, as it is alluded to in Rev. 22:14-19 – man’s intimate fellowship all started in a garden setting, and it will all end in a garden city called “The Lord is there”. Paradise finally restored wherein God in Jesus will dwell with His people, forever and ever. Hallelujah!

To The Persecuted Church

(cf. Rev. 2:8-11) The 2nd letter is addressed to the church at Smyrna. A city of 200,000 (during John’s time), located on the Aegean sea was said to be founded by an amazon named Smyrna. It was a very wealthy commercial center surpassed only by Ephesus in Asia Minor. It was a center of worship of the goddess Roma (195 B.C.) and emperor worship, and it had a large anti-Christian Jewish population. The letter starts out with, “These are the words of Him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” This is a title for Jesus that’s found in chapter 1. This is originally a title for Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; and 48:12) relating to Jesus as the Lamb that was slain but is now alive. It’s the idea of His substitutionary death and resurrection. The believers at Smyrna were experiencing pressing trouble and poverty. They were under real persecution as a result of which they became very poor. That’s unusual because Smyrna was a very wealthy city. Obviously, economic poverty was part of what was happening as it says “but you are still rich”, meaning, you just can’t judge Christians by what they have because these folks were rich in faith. The believers are being slandered by the Jewish people who are claiming they are rightly related to God, and the Christians are not. It was because of Jewish national pride based on their birthright that they are persecuting these believers. We have many allusions to that in the book of Acts (cf. Acts 13:50; 14:2; 14:5; 14:19; 17:5). If you will recall in John 8:44, Jesus called some of these Jews that they were of their father, the devil. But we know for a fact that it is the spiritual faith of Abraham that God requires for a man to be rightly related to God (cf. Romans 2:28-29; Revelation 3). Some say it’s the judaizers who are making life difficult for these believers, but I think it’s the Concilia or the emperor worship that’s being referred to here. John admonishes these believers not to be afraid of what they are going through even though the devil is going to throw them into prison for 10 days to be tested (to be tested with a view toward destruction). 10 days could be historical literal 10, or some say a complete number of days of persecution, we just don’t know. Furthermore, John encourages them to be faithful, meaning to continue to hang in there; a kind courage meant to hang in there against all odds. “Even if you have to die” – this refers to the many martyrs, from the history of Eusebius, who died in this place including Polycarp. We are to hang in there (a pervasive theme of the perseverance of the saints in the New Testament). Luke 12:4-5 says, “Don’t fear them who can kill the body, but fear Him who can even kill the sould in hell”. If they hang in there, they are going to receive the crown of life and will be never hurt by the 2nd death, which is the idea of hell and eternal separation from God. We must bear in mind that the Book of Revelation is primarily not about the how of the Second Coming but about the sovereign God that controls all history and who is going to bring history to a culmination at the glorification of the Saints and the judgment of Satan.

To The Compromising Church

Pergamum (KJV has Pergamos) was a large wealthy city and the capital of Asia Minor (since 282 b.c.). It was the home of Galen the physician and the center of the healing arts of Asclepios. It is even said that Asclepios was “a Pergamum god.” The symbol for this god was the snake. It also had a temple to Roma and the Emperor Augustus (A.D. 29) and was the administrative center (neokopros) of the Emperor’s cult. Its loyalty to Rome was well known. It was known for its worship and defense of the Greek pantheon. There was a huge Temple to Zeus on the acropolis that overlooked the whole city. It was shaped like a throne (i.e.,Satan’s throne). “The One who wields the sharp double-edged sword speaks…” (allusion to Isaiah 11:4; 49:2) – In the New Testament, it’s a metaphor for the power and incisiveness of the Word of God (cf. 2Thess. 2:8; Heb. 4:12). The believers in this city were under persecution because of the prevailing concilia or emperor worship cult. They were being commended for clinging to the Name of Jesus as Lord; His character and His trustworthiness. Yet there was something amiss with them. There were some of them who were clinging to the teachings of Balaam. Balaam of course, is a true prophet of God that Balak called to somehow cause the children of Israel to stumble. God wouldn’t let him prophesy, but he did give the man a way to do it, and that was to send the Moabite women down into the camp, and then God judge the Hebrew people for their idolatry (cf. Numbers 22:1-25; 31:16). Because the Nicolatians in verse 15, and the Balaamites in verse 14, and they were very similar to what happens to Jezebel the prophetess in verse 20, I think all 3 of these false teachings are related. They seem to be related with compromising with pagan culture as they would worship these pagan deities during their feast days. The food was dedicated these gods and they had sexual immorality as a regular practice of worship. Now they were being warned and commanded to make a decisive act of repentance or else, the Lord will come quickly and make war on them. These are members of the church that Christ was going to make war on. This seems to be temporal judgment more than an eschatological Second Coming. And then the letter concludes with the usual promise for those who would conquer – “I will give to him who conquers some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone with a new name written on it which no one knows except the man who receives it.” Manna of course was what God gave to the children of Israel in the wilderness wandering period. Some have said it refers to God’s provision in the New Age. If you read apocryphal book of 2nd Baruch 29:8 you will learn that they believe that Manna would be given to those people who lived in the Messianic age. Now other possibility is, Jeremiah was supposed to have hidden the ark in Mount Nebo and he would bring it out when the Messiah came and the manna was hidden inside the ark in the jar along with Aaron’s rod. That would be an allusion to 2nd Maccabees 2:4-8. Others say, it just goes back to the idea of this end-time period in a messianic banquet context. “and I will give him a white stone…” – It’s a symbol in the ancient near east. It could mean a ticket to a special banquet; It could mean the vote of an acquittal in a trial case; It could mean a stone given to an athlete when he run and won a race; or it could be a stone given to a slave when he gained freedom. But because of the Messianic banquet context, it seems that a stone (ticket) to enter the banquet is the idea with a new name written on it. This new name; they have a new city; a new song, all the way through the entire book of the Revelation seems to be an Old testament allusion (cf. Exo. 28:36ff; Isa. 56:5; 62:2; and 65:15). On the white stone is a new name written, and then it says “which no one knows except the one who receives it”. That may be connected with the idea that magic was involved in knowing the right name of deity and no one knows Jesus’ name but His followers. We’re not really sure if that’s what it means, but it’s a real possibility. The book of Revelation is really pregnant with symbols and allusions to the Old Testament, and even allusions to Jewish apocryphal books. This tells us that being dogmatic in understanding Revelation is simply inappropriate. God help us!

To The Corrupt Church

Thyatira was a smaller trade-oriented city located on a major road between Pergamum and Sardis which continued on to Philadelphia and Laodicea. It was famous for its woolen products, Lydia (cf. Acts 16:14), a seller of purple cloth, was from this city. It had several temples to local deities like Apollo and Diana.Notice as it says, “The Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet are like burnished bronze,…” This is the only place in the book of Revelation this title appears (it’s usually the Son of Man). I think the reason is because in verse 26, Psalm 2:8-9 will be specifically quoted and this “Son of God” is alluded to whose eyes are like coals of fire and whose feet like burnished bronze (cf. Daniel 10:6). The eyes meaning Christ knowledge of all things and that the metal feet meaning Christ’s ability, and I think that’s the idea here. Thyatira was being commended for working very hard than they did before, but something is wrong with them. They were tolerating Jezebel. Of course Jezebel is an Old Testament term like Balaam to describe a false teaching (Read 1 Kings 16:31ff about Jezebel). Notice, she claims to be a prophet; she claims to be a teacher of God, but she’s doing the very same things in verse 20, that the Balaamites and Nicolatians were doing and that is eating meat sacrificed to idols and practicing immorality. So “tolerating Jezebel” means compromising with pagan culture, and because Thyatira had many of these trade deals, probably was influenced by the different patron deities of these different trade deals in town. “And because she refuses to repent, I’m going to lay her on a bed of sickness, and unless she repents, I will surely strike her children (meaning followers).” The message is clear, not onl for Thyatira but to all churches, that God knows our thoughts. He knows all about us. Christ knows what we think (cf. Prov. 24:12; Psalms 7:9; 26:2; Jer. 11:20; 17:10). Notice that judgement is going to be on individual basis. The rest has been very corporate. But to the rest of the believers in Thyatira who were faithful and dependable both in service and theology, Christ encourages them to hang in there, and continue to the very end. The perseverance of the saints is a continual theme in the book of Revelation. The King of Kings and the Lord of lords promises those who will overcome that we will reign with Christ as He will rule over us with the gentleness of the Great Shepherd and the completeness of His reign. Jesus has the absolute authority from the Father (cf. Matt. 20:18; Phil. 2:9-11). “and I will give him the morning star” – Some say it’s a metaphor for resurrection life (cf. Rev. 22:16). Others say it’s a metaphor for intimate fellowship with Christ (cf. 2 Peter 11:9). Whatever it is, the promises of the Lord to those who will persevere to the very end are infinitely worth all the trials and persecutions believer will undergo in this fallen world.

To The Dead Church

Sardis was large, wealthy city built on a hill so steep that its defenses seemed impregnable (cf. Rev. 3:1-6). This somehow caused its citizens to be overconfident that enemy troops of Cyrus scaled the precipice by night and caught the Sardians off guard. It was the center of the worship of Cybele, the mother goddess. There is a sharp condemnation of the church at Sardis. It had a reputation of being alive, but in fact it is dead (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5; Jas 2:17). What a stark contrast to Paul’s speaking of a very different attitude, dying, and yet we live on’ (cf. 2 Cor. 6:9). “Wake up!” could be better translated as “Be ever watchful” (cf. Rom 13:11; 1 Cor. 16:13), because of the fact they had been twice captured by enemy forces owing to its failure to watch. Lack of spiritual vigilance may likewise be costly. “Strengthen what is left” – all was not yet lost, for there are things that remain. Unless the dying embers is fanned into flames, it is lost. “I have not found the thing you’ve done to be complete”. These folks may be like Matthew 7:21-23, their works look good but God wasn’t pleased with them at all. These believers were content with mediocrity. They had received the truth of the Gospel, but hey lack both enthusiasm and conviction. “…repent” – enjoins a sense of urgency. “If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief (proverbial expression of unexpectedness). This is quite often used for Jesus’ Second coming (cf. Matt. 24:43; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Peter 3:10), but in this context it seems to be temporal judgment coming to judge the church. However, there are a few believers who have not soiled their clothes, meaning, those with dirty clothing dishonored God so that they were debarred from worshiping. Walking with Christ in white speaks of believers who follow Christ in accordance with their status as justified persons. Being worthy does not mean they have merited their justification, but that they have done nothing to forfeit it. Three promises are given to whoever conquers: He’ll be clothed in white (Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer); will not have his name removed from the book of Life; and have Him confessed by Jesus Himself before His Father. All these expressions help bring out our heavenly standing, who we are in Jesus Christ. Hallelujah! When Jesus vouches for us, nothing but nothing really matters. Finally, there is always a message of hope and encouragement for those who will heed His call.

To The Faithful Church

(cf. Rev. 3:7-13) This city, founded around 159-138 b.c., was very prosperous because of its strategic position and perhaps because of the grape growing that flourished in the city. The god Bacchus, or Dionysus, was one of its chief deities. It was also a center for the Emperor worship cult (as were Smyrna and Pergamum) which was possibly the source of much of the Churches’ persecution in the provinces. The church was small but of good character. It had a great missionary activity for the Hellenistic way of life in that area. Its enemies came externally (persecution from the Romans and apostate Jews).The idea of holy and true indicate and affirm the deity of Jesus and His complete reliabilty. “Who carries the keys of David”, is an allusion to 2 Sam.7 – the royal Messiah-hood of the One coming in David’s line. Keys is the idea of authority or ownership. The specific allusion is from Isaiah 22:22, for how Jesus is going to let them in. Let them in to what? Well, the context seems to imply the Messianic banquet. Some say it’s salvation, but I think it’s the eternal kingdom that’s being talked about here. “He’s opened a door that no one can shut…” – this is the idea of an open door may be the ideal of missionary activity because this church of Philadelphia was known for their opening the door of salvation to others, like the keys to the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 18. ‘Open doors’ in the Bible speaks of opportunity for spiritual service (cf. Acts 14:27). The church in Philadelphia, though it was small and powerless, had not embraced any heretical teaching nor had denied Christ’s name. Because of this noteworthy achievement, and their missionary efforts, a reward of greater opportunity of service is granted them. The believers were being persecuted by those who claim to be Jews although they are not. Now, we learn that the real Jew is not someone who is physically circumsized, but whose heart is circumsized (cf. Rom. 2:28-29). You might want to see Gal. 3:29 and Gal. 6:16 for this idea of spiritual Israel. Notice as it says, “I will make them come and fall at your feet” – that’s an obvious allusion to several passages in the Old Testament where the Gentiles are going to come and bow down to the Jews (cf. Isa. 45:14; 49:23; 60:14). But here the tables have really been turned with the Jews rejecting Jesus as a Messiah, and now it’s the Jews who are going to come to the Gentiles. Notice in verse 10, “… I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world…” – Some use this as a reference to the tribulation period. That may be true because the inference is not just the church of Philadelphia, but the whole earth, and “those who dwell upon the earth” is a common metaphor for unbelievers in Revelation. Notice that God is going to keep them – this means God is going to take them out like a secret rapture, or go with them through the persecution. We don’t really know as we can’t be too dogmatic here. Our part is to HANG ON, while God’s part is to KEEP US. Hallelujah! The risen Lord speaks of His coming again, and admonishes believers to Hang on, or hold on which has the idea of ‘keeping a firm grip on’. No one of course can steal their crown, but they themselves can forfeit it, as Esau forfeited his place to Jacob, Reuben to Judah, Saul to David (the paradox of God’s sovereignty and man’s freewill). TO SERVE GOD IS A HIGH PRIVILEGE, BUT IS WITHDRAWN AND GIVEN TO ANOTHER WHEN ANYONE FAILS TO FULFILL HIS TASK. To the over-comers is the reward of making them a pillar in the temple; We learn from the cultural setting that some very famous citizens had their names written on the pillars in these different temples, and when the earthquakes hit the place, only the pillars were left. It’s a symbol of stability. Notice the ‘new name’, ‘the new Jerusalem’, and all these ‘new’ is characteristic of the book of Revelation.

To The Lukewarm Church

(cf. Rev. 3:14-22) Laodicea was one of the 3 cities in the Lychus River Valley ( the other cities were Colossae and Hierapolis). Churches were founded in each of these 3 cities by Epaphras (cf. Col. 1:17; 4:12-13). Laodicea was one of the richest commercial centres in the world, so that we have here a picture of the church in an affluent society. It had a very large Jewish population, and like Pergamum, it was a center for the worship of the healing god Asclepius, and prides itself of a medical school noted for its eye and ear salve.

God is called the Amen, reflecting the God of Truth. He is a faithful Witness in chapter 1 verse 5, and “Ruler of creation” as the Origin or Source of God’s creation. This is one of the strongest emphases for the pre-existent Christ, and Christ being the Agent of God’s creation (cf. John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:15, 18; Heb. 1:2). This “lukewarm” imagery comes from the idea of the hot springs of Hierapolis contrasted with the cold and refreshing water at Colossae. They were also known as a banking center, a clothing center, and a medical center, and all three of those are brought up, intimating they need to get gold from God,eye salve from God and clothing from God in Christ, because theirs is all corrupt. It’s an allusion of what they had in the local theme. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline…” – there are many passages in the Old Testament as well as in the New, particularly in Hebrews 12:6, where those whom God disciplines, know they’re His children, and that’s very important. Notice as it says, “So keep on being earnest, and once and for all repent.” – a very decisive repentance is mentioned over and over. “I’m standing at the door knocking…” – this is not evangelism. This is a church that’s supposed to return to God. It’s only speaking of the individual, you have to repent individually. There has been some corporate repentance. But this is individual repentance and restored fellowship. The idea about ‘eating with Him’, i think it’s the background of the Old Testament sacrifice; the peace sacrifice, for God symbolically ate with the worshipers. I think the idea of the word here is the evening meal, as a leisurely meal, a fellowship meal. I think it speaks of the Covenant idea. I think it’s the Messianic banquet. “I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.” is the emphases about ruling and reigning with Christ. Because He’s overcome, we’ve overcome. Because He’s taken His seat with the Father (cf. Rom. 8:34), we’re going to take our seat with Him. Hallelujah. He’s overcome. We’ve overcome. He’s reigning. We’re going to reign.

The book of Revelation is not just about the future, but about the spiritual realities of what God in Christ has done for us, no matter what we’re going through; persecutions or problems. God knows what we’re doing. Jesus cares and intercedes for us. And He’s going to work it out. Nothing just happens to God’s children. God knows what we’re going through. He cares. He wants to continue to refine us, and discipline us; to make us more like Christ. His judgment is not a sign of his anger, but of his love. God is focusing history toward a purpose. We need to hang in there. God is sovereign. It’s all going to work out. “You can trust Me” is the emphasis of the book of Revelation, and these 7 churches have set the stage in history for its historical relevance, and its prophetic relevance for every age. Hallelujah!