Let’s reminder. We are not covering the text of Revelation word for word. We are providing a way of thinking and reading Revelation that may help you as you read this book or any other Biblical book.
The Seven Letters 2.1-3.22
The first Vision in Revelation is covered by Revelation 1.9-3.22. The first part of that Vision is the “vivid word picture” of Jesus found in Revelation 1.9-20. We continue then, with the second part of the first vision in Revelation, which is often called the “letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor.”
John was personally acquainted with these seven churches in Asia Minor, which is today’s Modern Turkey. He knew their history and the conditions surrounding them. These seven churches came into existence during Paul’s ministry at Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19.10.
These seven churches were all located on a major mail route beginning with Ephesus. The route then traveled north to Smyrna and Pergamum. It then turned southeast to Thyatira and continued on to Sardis, Philadelphia, and finally ending at Laodicea. As we shall see, this is the exact order in which John orders the messages to the churches in the second and third chapters of Revelation.
Westerners live in a culture where the individual is king. We read the Bible looking for those personal nuggets that will help us in times of need. We very seldom read Scripture with a church or our church in mind. However, this is what these two chapters in Revelation are about. They are about the church, not about specific individuals in the church. As an example, we have read the fault of the Ephesian church, abandoning their first love, personally and maybe even corporately. The message here is not about discovering some emotion that you may have had when you discovered Jesus. The message is to the church who has forgotten its roots.
The seven letters were messages of warning and encouragement, which have a structured common plan.
- In the introduction of each letter, Jesus identifies himself by means of a descriptive phrase, which is taken from the vision in Chapter One. In each case, it is appropriate for the specific church. As an example, let’s compare 1.16 with 2.1.
In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (Rev. 1.16).
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lamp stands (Rev. 2.1).
This characterization from the vision in Chapter One is usually adapted to the situation in the local church. In this case, the holding of the seven stars in his right hand signifies the care of Jesus for his churches (Rev. 1.20; John 10.28).
- Jesus gives words of praise for the good qualities he found in the church. There is one exception to this pattern. The church at Laodicea had nothing worthy of praise to be found by Christ.
- There are also words of criticism for the faults of each church. There are also two exceptions: The church at Smyrna and Philadelphia in which Jesus found no faults.
- Each letter is addressed to the angel of a specific church. The angels addressed are either the functioning pastors of each church or the term may be regarded as the personifications of the churches.
- Each of the letters concludes with a promise for those who conquer.
Dispensational writers have taken these letters to be real letters to historical churches, but also see in them a preview of church history as it spirals downward to the lukewarm church at Laodicea. John Walvoord says that to interpret such a progression as pure accident would be incredible. “The order of the message to the churches seems to be divinely selected to give prophetically the main movement of history” (The Revelation of Jesus Christ. 52). One must note that Walvoord infers this. The context of the text makes no suggestion that the history of the church is in view. The purpose of these letters goes beyond the present instruction to these particular churches in the Roman Empire of the first century. They are designed to impress on the church that it is necessary to be patient and endure in a period of persecution. “He who has an ear…” is a recurring phrase in the letters to each church. This phrase implied that the message, which was given to each church, was meant for a wider audience. The number seven provides the clue that the whole church is in view. The message to these seven churches is the message to the whole church.
One Letter, Many Receivers
When today’s readers read the seven letters, the second and third chapters of Revelation, they invariably want to ask something like: Which church is like ours? It is more likely that your church has some of the positive and negative traits of these seven churches. Remember, John wrote one letter (Revelation) to all the seven churches. Each church read each other’s mail and the mail of the other churches.
The Letter to Ephesus: Abandon First Love. 2.1-7
Ephesus was a center of sea and land trade. There were three major trade routes that converged in Ephesus. Ephesus was one of the three most influential cities in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria being the other two. Ephesus was a free city which meant that it had a certain amount of self-rule. Ephesus bragged about its marketplace, stadium, and theater. The theater which overlooked its harbor could seat 2,500 people.
It was the center of Diana worship with one of the seven wonders of the ancient world being the temple of Diana. The temple employed thousands of priests and priestesses many of whom were temple prostitutes for Diana, who was the goddess of fertility. One of the major manufacturing industries in Ephesus was the making of images of its goddess (Acts 19.21-41). In addition, the city was also proud of its imperial cult which saw the ruling Caesar as a god. In John’s time, it would be Domitian.
This is one of those interesting sets of verses that is pulled out of its historical context and quoted as if it were a personal message. We may have been told, “The reason you are having this difficulty is that you have abandoned your first love for Jesus.” The text says that Jesus told the Ephesian church (remember, this was not written to an individual) that what he held against them was their abandonment of their first love. We must ask what that first love was.
To understand this fault, we must look at a short overview of the Ephesian church.
- The book of Acts tells us that Paul taught this church daily for about two years. During that time the seven churches to which John is writing here, were founded. How? Through the evangelistic fervor of the church at Ephesus (Acts 19.10).
- Later, when he is on his way to Jerusalem, he spoke to the elders from this church and told them that they should stand guard for the truth that they had been given (Acts 20.17-38). In short, they should make sure that they keep true to the doctrines that Paul had delivered to them and not let anyone from inside or outside the church detour them from that purpose.
- When Paul wrote his letter to Timothy, he commended the church for teaching sound, healthy doctrine (1 Timothy). They had heeded his word. They had turned their attention to guarding the faith, instead of sharing the faith.
It seems for that reason, Jesus found fault with them. Harmony is interesting. It takes two notes to have harmony. One note just doesn’t get it. The church had focused on one thing to the exclusion of the other. They lost their harmony. Producing harmony is truly a work of the Spirit. He called the church to repent and do the things that she had done at first.
The Letter to Smyrna: Thumbs Up! 2.8-11
Smyrna was a port city which was about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus. Smyrna had an exceptional port on the Aegean Sea that rivaled Ephesus for export business. The modern name for Smyrna is Izmir and it is the only one of the seven cities that is still in existence today. Smyrna was one of the two churches that had no fault attributed to it.
Jesus is described here from the first vision as: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again (Rev. 2.8). This phrase fits the local situation at Smyrna. In 600 BC the city was destroyed and lay barren until 300 BC. Its name means “myrrh” a substance used in ancient burials. The reference to “crown of life” would have stood out because Smyrna was famous for its games in which the winner received a “crown.”
Smyrna was praised because they had withstood the slander of the evil one. They would be cast into prison and would suffer persecution for ten days. Ten days was a symbolic way of saying their imprisonment would not be forever. It would be completed. If they died without recanting, they would receive the prize of life after death. Those who were persecuting could not touch real life. This was a message of comfort for them.
The Letter to Pergamum: Following False Teachers. 2.12-17
Pergamum was about forty miles around the coast of the Aegean Sea and then ten miles inland. It was the next stop for a letter carrier. It was an impressive city built on a hill about one thousand feet in height, which created a natural fortress. It rivaled Ephesus as the leading city in its region. It was the capital of the province of Asia and the center of culture in Asia.
The problem of the Pergamum church was that some of their members were following the teachings of the Nicolaitans, which was essentially the teaching of Balaam. The city was ruled by Satan instead of the kingdom. In the Old Testament, we find the story of Balaam in Numbers 22.1-24.25. The Moabite king, Balak, was being threatened by the Israelites. He invited Balaam to prophetically curse Israel. God restrained Balaam and, instead of allowing Balaam to curse Israel, God caused Balaam to bless Israel. This disgusted Balak. Becasue of Balaam, Israel became involved in sexual license and the idolatrous worship of Baal. These sins were attributed to the advice of Balaam to Balak (Num. 25.1-3; 31.16). The sin of Balaam was the promotion of idolatry and immorality. The Nicolaitans (nick-oh-LAY-ih-tuns) were an early Christian heretical sect, which was made up of the followers of Nicolas. He was possibly a deacon (Acts 6.5) who had gone astray. The Nicolaitans are mentioned only two times in Revelation (Rev. 2.6, 14-15).
The error of the Nicolaitans was moral rather than doctrinal. Many believe that their teaching of sexual laxity was an easy message to entertain in a world of sexual laxity. It seems here, as with the Corinthian church earlier, that the church had not impregnated the world as it should have, but the world had impregnated the church as it should not have.
While the exact issues are different, similar compromises face the church today. Each society has its own “idols” that it expects all its citizens to worship, whether those idols be the government itself or some values or practices of the society. These “idols” are the places at which the values of the society conflict with total allegiance to Christ. Furthermore, the Nicolaitans are still with us under a variety of names, for there are always people who in the name of being “realistic” or under any number of other theological justifications counsel compromise with the dominant culture. This passage warns us that Jesus will not “buy” these justifications. He demands nothing less than total loyalty to his own person and directions. Anything less than this will put those who compromise in danger of his judgment. (Kaiser, W. C. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity. 1997. 761)
The Letter to Thyatira: Accommodation. 2.18-28
The mail carrier would leave Pergamum and travel about forty miles southeast, traveling over small hills into the fertile plain of Lycus. There lay Thyatira which was known for its manufacturing.
The fault of the church at Thyatira was that they tolerated Jezebel, a woman claiming to be a prophetess, in their midst. She was teaching members of the church to commit sexual immorality and eat meat offered to idols. These may both be references to worship within a local pagan temple where both issues were part of worship. Some believe that this Jezebel was a teacher in the Nicolaitan group. Like Pergamum, the church had been impregnated by the culture instead of impregnated the culture!
The Letter to Sardis. Looking Alive But Being Dead. 3.1-6
About thirty miles from Thyatira was the next mail stop at the city of Sardis. Sardis was a wealthy city built on two locations. The newer section contained the proud temple of Diana, a theater, and a stadium. Sardis was famous for its minting of gold and silver coins. It claimed to be the discovering city of wool dying. The wealth eventually led to moral self-indulgence.
The challenge to the church at 3.1 was to “wake up!” This reference would have been perfectly understood by the residents of Sardis. Two times in their previous history they had been attacked at night when the city thought it was safe. The church at Sardis was known for its good works. It had an outstanding reputation for life and vitality, but in the sight of God it was dead. This is a picture of being outwardly busy with the externals of religious activity, but devoid of any spiritual life and power. They had external practice without any spiritual punch. This is the most severe denunciation of the seven churches.
The Letter to Philadelphia: Thumbs Up! 3.7-13
Philadelphia lay about twenty-five miles southeast of Sardis. The citizens of Pergamum founded it. It was on the trade routes which led to Mysia, Lydia, and Phrygia. Its economy was based on agriculture and industry. There was no fault found in the church at Philadelphia. This church was the opposite image of the ones mentioned above. The culture was the same, but she had not allowed it to seep into the fabric of the church. So much so, that the followers of Satan would fall at the feet of the church. This was a way of saying that those who were not Christ followers would become followers of Christ. Falling at one’s feet was a metaphor of submission.
The Letter to Laodicea: Ineffectiveness. 3.14-22
At the end of the mail route was the city of Laodicea. It was about forty-five miles southeast of Philadelphia. It was the wealthiest of the seven cities mentioned. It was known for its manufacture of rare black wool, its banks, and a medical school that produced eye salve. The city was the center for the imperial cult as well as for the worship of the god of healing (Asclepius) and the chief of gods (Zeus). It had a large Jewish population.
The fault of the church at Laodicea was their indifference and complacency. They were neither cold toward the gospel nor hot with zeal and fervor. They were nauseously lukewarm. Another way of looking at these words is to understand that there was a contrast being made between the hot, medicinal waters of Hierapolis and the cold, pure waters of Colosse. The hot water coming from Hierapolis was not fit to drink and had to be left in jars to cool so the deposits from the aqueduct could settle. If one drank it as it arrived, the person would vomit. Thus, the church at Laodicea was providing neither refreshment for the spiritually weary nor healing for the spiritually sick. It was totally ineffective. This interpretation keeps one from putting Jesus in the position of preferring the church to be cold rather than lukewarm. The church is not being called to task for its spiritual temperature, but for its barrenness of works. (Mounce. The Book of Revelation. 125) The strong language of Jesus that he will spit them out of his mouth is made to rouse the church out of their indifference.
What Jesus Thinks About the Church!
Here’s the list:
- The Letter to Ephesus: Abandoned First Love.
- The Letter to Smyrna: Thumbs Up!
- The Letter to Pergamum: Following False Teachers.
- The Letter to Thyatira: Tolerated Jezebel.
- The Letter to Sardis. Looking Alive But Being Dead.
- The Letter to Philadelphia: Thumbs Up!
- The Letter to Laodicea: Ineffectiveness.
We have lots of opinions about the church. We have lots of dissing of the church. We have some folks happy with the church and some folks unhappy with the church. Often criticism about the church has to do with what the church is doing or not doing. It’s too traditional. It’s too boring. It’s attractional in its flavor. It’s seeker sensitive. It’s classical Pentecostal. It’s liberal. It’s evangelical. It’s out of touch with the culture. It’s, well you fill in the blank! We’ve all heard it. What is important is what Jesus might think about the church. Remember, this is a message to the “churches” not to a specific person.
Notice, the complaints of Jesus are not the complaints we have. He is dealing with the essence of the “churches,” what makes them tick or not tick. Our complaints are often about the symptoms that we see and we set out to fix the symptoms. What are the causes? Does your church have a touch of the illness of abandoning your first love, following false teachers, looking hip but being a rip, or is your church just plain ineffective. While he gave praise for each church, except for Laodicea, he has some serious accusations that should call us to a serious inventory.
What’s the solution? Stop! doing what we are doing and set a journey toward the opposite. That’s repentance! Pick up the first love as the Ephesian church was encouraged to do. Understand that there are those “in the church,” maybe in your church, who can and will deceive you by their teaching. If your church is dead, find a way to bring new life to it, or allow it to actually die gracefully. Become effective! At this point, the words to the Ephesian church should ring loudly in our ears. “Repent…. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” I wonder how many churches are “dead men walking?”
More than likely, a single church today does not have just one of these diseases, but several of them all at the same time. The good and the bad is mixed. The journey of a church is to unhook from the “bad” and get hooked with the “good.” Let’s become Smyrna and Philadelphia churches. What say ye, church?
- In light of the concerns of Jesus for these seven churches, which concerns would you have about your own church today?
- How does John’s picture of Christ in the first part of Vision 1 and his use of the same images in each of the chats with the seven churches help you understand the text better? Or does it?
- What are some of the ways that churches have lost their way in being a “clear witness” to their communities’ “passion” for planting churches?
- Write out a praise for the church as a whole or for your own community of faith.