The Lord Speaks to His Churches
A Devotional Study of Revelation 2-3
By: S. Ademola Ishola
When I was approached about writing this year’s Annual Bible Study, I was not in the mood to accept such an assignment. I consider such a project very important to be treated lightly. It requires so much time that I felt it was quite impossible when I consider my daily schedule. However, Rev. Titi Irele would not give up coming to remind me. When I was informed that it was going to be a New Testament study, I felt I could use part of my write-ups on some New Testament studies which are yet to be published.
After some time of reflection and prayers, the Lord led me to this present study. What I found in my computer archive was not satisfactory in relation to our topic, and so began the nightmare of having to get a feeble study done. What is found in the following pages is simply God’s special grace in the Holy Spirit. The Letters of our Lord to the churches have always fascinated me, as they remind me of what my Lord requires of me. My present job in relation to pastoral visits here and there convinces me that this message is needed by all of us.
I am so grateful to God for the opportunity to complete the task. The Lord used some “oppressors” such as Miss Shirley Ajoke Gunn, Revds. Mrs. Irele and Jonathan Ojo among others, who kept bugging me to complete the task. They kept encouraging me despite several deadlines I missed. I am grateful to God for them. Rev. Deji Ayegboyin, Ph.D. worked hard to proof-read and made necessary corrections. I am also grateful to God for my prayer-partners and accountability group led by Rev ‘Demola Falade for standing in the gap. Any shortcoming and other infelicities in this study are solely the responsibility of the author.
This book is dedicated to my loving wife, Elizabeth Igbayilola who kept calling to encourage me to quickly complete the assignment. May the Lord grant that we all will pay attention to “what the Spirit says to the churches.”
S. Ademola Ishola.
Revelation as the disclosure of God’s plan for the end-time has always been either avoided by those who cannot stand the symbolic language in which it is couched, or given undue attention by some who give the book some interpretations beyond what is originally meant. The reason may simply be due to designation: Apocalypse—the Greek name of the book, which means the disclosure of divine truth given to holy men by the Holy Spirit. We must avoid the two extremes, but regardless of how we look at the Apocalypse, it is extremely important for the Church as the messages therein prepare believers for what it takes to live for their Lord today, the final reign of their Lord and Savior.
We have no doubt whatsoever that God’s Word in the Apocalypse is His mindset as to what was happening then, what is happening now, and what would happen to His churches scattered throughout the world. The issues affecting the Church then casts its shadows on the Church today and the Lord is as concerned about the Early Church as He is apprehensive of the Latter Church. Each local church, anywhere is known to the Lord of history, and His Word to any church at any time could apply to another anywhere else, no matter how remote they are to each other. Again, the Word of the Lord has relevance, not only to those churches to which the Letters were addressed, but churches that are planted in every place and in every generation.
Let us express another conviction that these churches were not fictitious, as the names suggest. They are historical and geographical, but also symbolic. Each church had the potentials to be the very best that God would want her to be, and He decided to reveal things that may affect such a church from reaching her status of excellence. Some churches received words of commendation while some had remarks of condemnation. This demonstrate clearly that the Lord of mercy who revealed powerful words to His churches is also the Lord of judgment who would simply not wink at the sins of anyone who messes with His local bodies anywhere in any generation from reaching her potentials!
The Recipients of the Letters
In this study, we are interested in the messages of the glorified Lord to seven churches in Asia through John the Apostle while he was exiled in Patmos. These churches bore resemblance to the so-called “The Body of Christ” in our society today. The Church than as now was characterized by affluence, that is, reliance on financial resources for personal and corporate security, sexual immorality, spiritual apathy, persecution of Christian minority, religious activities without spiritual vitality and all forms of deception.
Why seven churches? At least, we know about several churches mentioned in Acts and the Epistles, namely, “The Seven” and four others in Troas (Acts 20:5; 2 Cor. 2:12), Miletus (Acts 20:17); Colossae (Col 1:2), and Hierapolis (Col 4:13). The “seven” must therefore have been deliberately selected by the all-knowing Lord of the Church to represent all the churches of all ages. We must remember that because John was in exile under the watchful eyes of the Romans, symbols were used to get the message across to the recipients. Evidently his writings were smuggled out of the prison. The target audience is farther that the seven churches as “Seven” stands for completeness. The “seven churches of Asia Minor represent the totality of Christ’s churches, scattered across the world and over time, and their problems are symptomatic of those confronting churches in all times and places.”
Key Words in the Letters
Let us first consider some key words in the Letters. Angels in the Letters stand for elders or pastors of the churches, as no heavenly angel ever pastored an earthly church before. Seven stars are just like angels who are the messengers or leaders of the churches. The golden lampstands stand for churches, which are the lights to the world so that people would not walk in darkness of morality and in disobedience to the dictates of God. The Lord Jesus Christ is described in several ways: He is the One “who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the golden lampstands” (2:1b); “the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (2:8b); “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (2:12b); “the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (2:18b); “him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (3:1b); “him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David” (3:7b); “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation” (3:14b).
Method of Study
We plan to follow the pattern found in the seven letters as we look at the passages, namely, address; description of the exalted Christ; blame and/or praise or commendation for the church addressed; threat and/or admonition; and final exhortation and promise to the believers. Unless otherwise indicated, the New International Version of the Bible would be used for this study.
The Importance of the Study
The study of just two chapters of Revelation for our Annual Bible Study appears to be so short, yet, the messages in each could take several months to study in depth. These two chapters of Revelation are important for the Church to study and meditate on for several reasons, among which are:
- The Lord of the Church knows the state or the condition of his churches everywhere, and an effort to understand his knowledge of us may keep us alert to what he wants every church to know and do.
- When a church is established, there is always a spiritual momentum at the beginning and this may be kept for few years, then comes relaxation of the spiritual disciplines that makes the Church different from the society. The message of Christ in these chapters can help churches keep the spiritual momentum.
- Thirdly, because the Church is in the world that is so dynamic with so many challenges, there is always the tendency towards tilting to whims and caprices of worldliness. In other words, if care is not taken, the world can influence the Church to adopt into its system to the extent that the church would lose its flavor and influence. The messages in these chapters can stem such a drift towards doing things just like the world’s system does.
- Also, there is always the tendency towards presumptions that can easily deaden one’s conscience to what matters, which usually happens when practices or traditions replace the essence of Christianity. The tradition of the fathers and of teachers of the Law in Judaism blindfolded most Jews of Christ’s time to miss God’s gift of eternal life and spiritual reorientation. This has happened and is still happening to various traditions of the Church, and the messages of Christ to His Church can provide a way out.
The Church with a Declining Love
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 lampstands: 2I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which 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. 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is the paradise of God.
This Letter goes to the “angel of the church in Ephesus.” In our introduction, we identified the “angel” to be the pastor, the minister, or the overseer of this church. The end-users or the recipients actually stand for the church to whom the Lord directed his message. The “angel” or the pastor delivers the message. In other words, the pastor becomes the means by which the message goes to the people of God. The pastor is thus responsible for the discernment of the Lord’s message, and to deliver it without diluting it, while the church must pay close attention to the Lord’s message through the minister.
The Ephesian Church
The Gospel was introduced to this church by Paul’s close partners in ministry, namely, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18-19), and they were joined by the eloquent preacher, Apollos (Acts 18:24-26). The preaching and teaching ministries of these people were earlier centred on the Old Testament, or those whose understanding of the Messiah was limited to the teaching of John the Baptist. Paul met Apollos close to the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:19-21). It was during his third missionary journey that Paul engaged in full-fledge gospel ministry, when he preached the Gospel and then baptized the believers in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 19:5). Paul later spent about three years building up the church (Acts 20:31).
It was in this church that dramatic events accompanied the preaching of Paul, and God confirmed the ministry of Paul among the Ephesians with miracles such as healings and deliverance of those under the spell of Satan (Acts 19:11-12). It was here that the seven sons of Sceva tried to emulate Paul’s style of preaching and healing, without success because they did not belong to Jesus Christ through repentance and confession of faith in Him. They were rather humiliated by the demoniac who recognized them to be fake exorcists (Acts 19:13-16)! The resultant effect of the fake exorcists’ ordeal became known to all, and many turned to the Lord Jesus Christ, and according to Luke, “the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number of them who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly” (Acts 19:17b-19a). Also, due to the acceptance of the Gospel by many dwellers in Ephesus, several businesses started crumbling, particularly the trade of pagan craftsmen who enriched themselves through the sale of figurines or images of the Ephesian goddess Artemis, (also called Diana by the Romans). The leader of the silversmiths, Demetrius, whose lucrative business busted through the transforming power of the Gospel stood his ground against Paul’s preaching (Acts 19:23-41).
The City of Ephesus
There are some important facts about Ephesus that may provide some insight into the message of the Lord to this church. While the city was not the capital of the province, yet, the Roman governor resided there, rather than Pergamum, the official capital. The population was estimated between 250,000 and 500,000 residents, possibly because it was the primary harbor of the province, thus attracting many people there.
Ephesus could boast of several huge public buildings and luxurious private homes. The theater there could sit twenty-five thousand spectators, while several temples were erected for various gods, chief among whom was the one dedicated to Artemis, a mother-goddess. The worship of this goddess was vile, as it had many priests and priestesses who were ritual prostitutes. According to William Barclay, Heraclitus, one of the Ephesian philosophers declared that no one with good conscience could live in that city without weeping for its gross immorality.
It is amazing that a church would survive and make positive impact on such a city!
Description of Christ
The Lord was described as “the One who holds the seven stars in his right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1c). The “seven stars” are the leaders of the churches, whom Christ “holds,” that is, who are under His power and protection, firmly kept in his right hand. Also, the Lord nourishes and nurtures the pastor, as that is what the hand symbolizes. Each pastor is like the apple of His eye, and thus enjoys His constant watch care, even in times of tribulations. He also “walks among the seven golden lampstands,” that is, He is always present in evaluating, scrutinizing, assessing and analyzing the activities of His churches, for that is what “walking among” indicates! Let us note that even though the letter is to Ephesus, yet, all the churches could not miss His presence. How worrisome and awesome this knowledge should be to the modern churches, as He is the same yesterday, today and forever, so Hebrews 13:8 declares!
Before listing the Lord=s commendation of this Church which is five-fold (verses 2-3, 6), it is important for believers to note that the Lord said, “I know your deeds.” These words denote that He has complete and full knowledge of what was and is happening in each church. The Greek word used here is oida, which connotes full knowledge, rather than ginosko, which means progressive acquisition of knowledge. In other words, nothing can be hidden from the all-knowing and all-seeing eyes of the Lord. What a sobering thought to believers and church leaders in regard to how we handle the things of God! Let us dilate on the five words of commendation.
- The Ephesian church worked and labored for the Lord (v. 2a). The word used for labor is kopon, which means “to labor to the point of weariness, sweat, and exhaustion; to work and labor to the limit of one’s ability.”
- The Ephesian church never entertained spectator’s mentality, but rather the church was very diligent in the work of Christ. This explains why the diligent Apostle Paul could spend three years with this church. The members of the congregation joined him to evangelize their heathen neighbors aggressively. For the modern church, we must realize that we must not allow for lethargy or laziness in the way we work in His vineyard.
- The Ephesian church persevered, that is, the members were steadfast in the midst of trying circumstances. The Greek word used, hupomonē “does not denote a grim, fatalistic resignation, but a courageous acceptance of hardship, suffering, and loss.”
- Has the modern Church anything to learn from this disposition? Some in the body of Christ have backslidden, some have even become apostates because they refused to persevere in times of difficulty. But times of difficulty must come, only one’s ability to persevere qualifies one for this commendation.
- The Ephesian church refused to tolerate wicked men. The church so to speak, refused to allow evil men to operate in their midst. You will recall that Paul wrote to this church challenging them not to “give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesian 4:27), and the church kept this word by not allowing unbiblical character and lifestyles to infiltrate the body of Christ. The modern church has a lot to learn from this church, even as some churches are still battling with the menace of secret cult members, philosophical heretics like Encankers, and those whose loyalty to Christ is questionable. Is it not strange that some churches have not bothered to know the background of their teachers, preachers and occasional guest ministers?
- The Ephesian church tested the life, doctrine and claims of Christian leaders who came to them – “those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.” Again, the Ephesian church never forgot the charge of Paul to their leaders several years earlier when he said:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30).
It is very likely that the Letter of John was widely circulated among the churches when he wrote:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming in the world (1 John 4:1-3).
Some churches tolerate wicked men, false teachers inadvertently. Several passages suggest the clue such as Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Cor 11:13-15; 2 John 7, 10). These make it clear that diligent search, study and meditation upon God’s Word are the only unmistakable means to keep wicked teachers away from the church.
- The final commendation is in verse 6: the Ephesian church “hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” The origin and identification of these people are not clear. Some scholars claim that they originated from Nicolas, one of the Seven chosen to look after tables in Acts 6, and that he became an apostate. The Letter to Pergamum also mentioned the Nicolaitans where the Lord linked them with Balaam whose false teaching led the Israelites astray through sensual and immoral relationship with Moabite women (cf. Numbers 25; 31:16). There are some teachings peculiar to this heretical group. These include belief in heavenly Christ rather than his earthly manifestation, belief that matter is evil and only Spirit is good, thus emphasizing asceticism as the only way of life acceptable to God. Incidentally, they are also known to teach that whatever one does with one’s body does not matter, provided one’s spirit is united with God, thus abandoning themselves to unrestrained indulgence. The Nicolaitans’ teaching was thus “an exaggeration of the doctrine of Christian liberty which attempted an ethical compromise with heathenism.”
- The Nicolaitans, according to second century tradition also shared their goods, including their wives.
- No wonder the Ephesian believers hated them and all that they stood for. The modern church must behave similarly against those whose lifestyles do not match the teachings of our Lord. There are many people who think they can do whatever they like so long as they give to the church and are in the good book of the church leaders. Such people must be purged from the church if they are not willing to repent of their evil deeds.
The Lord’s Complaints
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love (2:4).
The main complaint of the Lord against this church is her slack in the devotion to the Lord, or forsaking the first love. Again, the love here stands for commitment to the Lord. In other words, their first love for the Lord has waned, slacked, grown lukewarm, that is, her spiritual fervor, spark and vibrancy was no longer apparent. We may have or may even know the correct doctrines and be full of activities in terms of worship, but these are not enough until all these show in heart-felt love and devotion to the Lord=s Word and faithfully doing those things He loves. It is one thing to be seen to be carrying out one’s Christian responsibilities, it is another thing that our love for the Lord and his followers will not diminish.
It is not only the love of the Lord that can grow cold, but the end-result of one’s love for the Lord, that is, love for fellow human being can easily slack slack as well. When the Lord emphasized that love for the Lord God and love for fellow believers and unbelievers alike summarized the whole Law, the Ephesian church fell short in this regard. It is unfortunate that we still find so many lonely people in crowded pews on Sundays and in the midst of many Christian fellowships.
The questions now are: How is your love and devotion to the Lord today? Do you just mouth it because you know the right words, but do not practice it by living it, or setting other believers good examples, or even discouraging others who want to grow and do God=s will? Check the temperature of your spirituality B is it hot or cold? Is your loyalty to worldliness or friendship with worldly people affecting your devotion and love for your Lord? What in your personal opinion is distracting your whole attention, love and faithfulness to the Lord today? Whatever the Holy Spirit convicts you of right now are the complaints of the Lord, and you need to repent and ask Him for forgiveness.
The Lord’s Warning or Admonition (verses 5, 7)
The Lord=s warning to this church is to avoid the terrible punishments that may be meted out to those who fail to make amends or repent of their weaknesses or spiritual problems. The Lord warned the Ephesians to remember, that is, to think back, to recall the height from which you have fallen. It is always good to refer to one’s history, and see whether one has derailed from the original vision. What follows is repentance, and the charge to do the things you did at first, that is, the things that elicited the Lord’s commendation listed above. Failure to repent and recapture those spiritual exercises she did at first could lead to the Lord removing her lampstand from its place (verse 5). This stands for ability to serve as an effective church and individual Christian.
Again the lampstand stands for Christian witness and effective influence in the community. Have you ever asked yourself the question: “As a Christian, why is my life not as effective as it should be?” “Why am I not bearing the necessary fruits for God’s glory and the blessing of others?” “Why is my life like the Dead Sea that stifles life out of living things that enter it?” Once the lights go out, any lighthouse becomes useless for ships looking for safe haven or the right place to place its anchor. In other words, some churches and individual Christians can exist and show signs of Christianity without being lights in the midst of darkness, or setting good examples to other believers. The seriousness of the warning is that Christ Himself will extinguish the light. “I will come and remove your lampstand from its place.” The Lord will do it, and in most cases at a time you least expect it, even at a time when you think you are very active in God=s house! No pastor will remove it, not even the whole church, but the Lord, the righteous Judge who sees everything you do in secret, who knows the motives of your heart. There are so many churches and individual Christians who are no longer witnessing or living for the Lord. There are such churches in Europe, the Americas and in Africa. It happened in Egypt, Nubia, North Africa, as well as Ethiopia. So are churches who are no longer good influences where they are located, and of course Christians who are stumbling blocks to others who want to do God’s will.
Verse 7 is the concluding word of the Lord to the Ephesian church. He who has ear is a strong word, meaning those who are wise must strain their nerves to hear God’s warning. You must not be accused of being dull in hearing as the Israelites of old. Even those who do not have ability to hear today are being helped to be smart through the use of signs and ability to read people=s lips. We are expected not just to hear these words, but pay serious attention and willingness to obey, as Hebrews 2:1 warns us. The word is coming from God=s Spirit and we must not harden our hearts, for whoever is being warned, but hardens his neck will suddenly be destroyed without remedy (cf. Proverbs 29:1). He says, “What the Spirit says to the churches,” not what the pastor says, and please note that the warning is to all the churches, not just the Ephesian church, thus signifying the universal nature of God’s warning. James says in 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
Again, to him who overcomes, that is, those who remain steadfastly faithful to the Lord are going to experience fellowship in God=s paradise—the heavenly garden of God. The overcomers are the people of faith, Christians who do not walk by sight but by faith, (cf. 2 Cor 5:7), by what the Word of God says, not by what can be seen, measured by man-made standard. John also defines the overcomers thus: “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5).
The overcomers are assured of God’s promise: “I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” The right is the authority given to the faithful ones to enjoy what Adam lost due to sin of disobedience in Gen 2:9. The tree of life stands for eternal life, while paradise of God is the heavenly throne, which the Lord Jesus referred to as “my Father’s house” in John 14:6.
This study calls for renewal of each church’s and each believer’s commitment and love to the Lord. It is time to say to Him, AI have heard what the Holy Spirit is saying, and there is need to experience God=s fellowship, commendation and the reward.@ Jesus is always willing to give any church and anyone the chance to make amends, once the willingness to stop playing religious games of mouthing the right words along with others, worshiping and engaging in all activities without obedience stops.
Smyrna: The Suffering Church
8“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death (2:8-11).
The subject of suffering or persecution of the Church universal has been part of her history from the very beginning, yet, paradoxically, the more she is persecuted, the more she keeps growing, and even getting purer. Suffering or persecution is not strange to the church in Africa, nor other parts of the world. The Nigerian Church continues to experience persecution every now and again. Just at a time when one thinks political pressure has been exerted on the persecutors to stop the harassment and vandalization of Christian businesses and churches, as well as the killings of believers, another round of persecution in some other places will commence. Yet, it would appear that no sooner than the persecution rages, the greater has always been the fervency of the Church’s commitment to her Lord, even when it is not apparent to observers. The Bible appears to link persecution to spiritual strength. Peter writes in 1 Pet 5:10:
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
James in 1:2-4 encourages Christians as well:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Above all, the Lord of the Church suffered greater and ultimate persecution, that is, the cruel death on the cross to earn believers purposeful life on earth and eternal life.
While the Smyrna church suffered, she still endured and persevered, and the persecution helped to purge the membership from sin. Of the churches, this is one of the two churches that did not receive any rebuke from the Lord. Ironically, the church is located in a city whose name means “bitter” or “myrrh” that is associated with embalming spice (John 19:39), and perfume for the living (Matt 2:11). The church thus exemplified sweetness in the midst of bitter suffering. We will use the outline as we find in the passage, namely, the address, (and this is similar to the one written to Ephesus and the rest), the church, the city, description of Christ, the commendation, the command and final exhortation.
The Smyrna Church
Strangely enough, Acts did not mention this church as being planted by anyone, however, it is presumed this church was planted when Paul was in Ephesus, either directly by him or some of his disciples. The Smynian church was in the midst of large Jewish population that hated Christians for believing in a Messiah that was crucified (cf. Deut 21:23)! This hatred encouraged the Romans as well to hate Christians for refusing to worship the Roman goddess, Roma and the Emperor considered to be their lord.
The famous martyr of this church was the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp who was burned at the stake on one Saturday in 155 AD. When he was urged by the proconsul to recant, Polycarp responded, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Strange enough, the Jews were excited to break the Sabbath in order to gather wood for the fire that consumed him.
The City of Smyrna
Smyrna was one of the strongholds of the Romans, and the citizens were also very loyal to Rome. The city was rewarded by Rome by citing the temple dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius there. There were other temples for the worship of Cybele, Zeus, Apollo, Asklepios, and Aphrodite. The city also built a stadium, a library as well as the largest theater in Asia.
While Ephesus went out of existence, Smyrna continued to thrive until today, and it is one of the largest cities of Turkey now called Izmir.
Description of Christ
“These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (2:8c).
The writer described the correspondent as the glorified Lord, but here using one of the Old Testament’s titles of God the Father as “The first and the last” (Isa. 44:6; 48:12). This title affirms Jesus the Lord as equal to the Father in his nature as eternal, the beginning, the origin of everything, and the end of everything, One who continues to be or exists beyond time and space. This title shows clearly his authority over all creation, authority of life over the persecutors and the persecuted, and whose existence spans time and space.
However, the eternal God in Jesus Christ with all authority and power divested himself of his majesty (cf. Phil 2:6-8) and manifested himself in human form, and stooped so low as to die – was dead, and has come to life. The death on the cross, already a past tense was not the end of the suffering of Christ as the supreme sacrifice for sin. The resurrection followed the death on the cross, thus his victory over the persecution by the Jews and the suffering associated with paying the penalty for sin. 1 Peter 1:18 provides the answer to the mystery surrounding the death of the First and the Last with the statement that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit.”
This title, “the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” therefore, was to bring comfort and encouragement to the Smyrna church for the suffering most of the members were receiving at the time. The Lord to whom they owed their allegiance went through greater suffering, but His victory over death should encourage them that though they suffered or shared in his suffering, in the end they would be vindicated with victory and peace that external circumstances of life could not dampen, and also with resurrection. He encouraged his disciples thus: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The Lord who comforted the Smyrna church is still on the throne, and more than able to uphold and strengthen those going through persecution and hard times today.
“I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9).
The Smyrna church was commended for three main things by the Lord who knows everything. Evidently He has knowledge about what happens to His church and every believer. Let us observe more closely what attracted the Lord’s commendation.
1. The church persevered under tribulation or affliction. The Greek word used for affliction is thlipsis which literally means “pressure.” More precisely, it connotes severe pressure under affliction. In this passage affliction refers to all shades of persecutions which include destruction of their properties, deprivation of their rights, as well as death as it happened to their bishop Polycarp. If the leader was martyred, then the followers could have no hiding place. When one considers what is happening to the believers in Indonesia and other Moslem-dominated communities like Libya, Iran, Sudan where Christians are hounded and pursued virtually everyday, we may then imagine what Smyrna believers went through. Believers are forewarned by the Lord in the Gospels, and of course, in the Epistles as the following references show – (Matt 10:17-18; 24:9; Luke 21:12; John 15:20-21; 16:2; 2 Tim 3:12; Heb 12:3 and 1 Pet 4:12-13), that difficult times would certainly come but those who wait on the Lord shall have their strength renewed to stand against the pressure.
2. The church was faithfully committed to the Lord in poverty. This was the natural consequence of the believers’ refusal to submit to the cult of emperor worship. Most of them were forced out of their jobs, while Christian women and their children were rejected by their unbelieving husbands and thus became beggarly. Of course some of them lost their properties due to confiscation by the civil authority for their refusal to confess Caesar as lord. However, the Lord said they were rich spiritually. They were loaded with what mattered most in life that money or material things could not provide or offer. They were rich spiritually because the Lord bequethed peace of mind, joy, goodness, self-control, faith, strength of God in the midst of trial, as well as the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to some Christians earlier and his letter must have circulated to Smyrna church that, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10). Paul reminded them again in 2 Cor 8:9:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
James reiterated Paul’s exhortation when he asked: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
3. The church also stood tall in spite of the “slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The strong word used by the Lord to describe the so-called Jews indicate their strong ties with the wish of Satan to destroy the church through slander or passing false rumor and unfounded allegations against Christians. Unbelieving Jews were privy to the accusation of Christians as cannibals. They have currency to the falsehood that when Christians met for the Lord’s Supper, they actually ate human flesh and drank human blood. The “holy kiss” was considered immoral, while they also accused Christians of political disloyalty for their refusal to bow to emperors’ images. The intention was to call attention of the Roman authority against the Christians for possible persecution. The Jews commonly planned their slander or libel while in the Synagogue, thus, they became Satan’s tool to torment believers. They were Satan-inspired to sponsor unwarranted attacks on believers, and this is why Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10).
For the modern church, it is important to point out some implications. It is possible for some churches to be doing the will of Satan when some members slander or publish libels against others in the body of Christ because they do some things different from the rest, possibly for being more committed to the Lord than some leaders. If Satan could borrow Peter to attempt to persuade the Lord from going to the Cross, local congregations can also do the bidding of Satan when such churches are not sensitive to the dictates of the Holy Spirit, particularly when the so-called zeal to defend “our heritage” does not match the ethical teachings of God’s Word
The Command of the Lord
“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days” (2:10a).
It is strange that the Lord warned the Smyrna believers to braze up for more stretching of their faith. This is the realistic Lord who would not mince His words. One wonders what this may sound or mean to the prosperity preachers who insist only on positive confession theology! The Lord warned believers in John 16:33b, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” The Lord however begins with the command that they should not fear or be afraid of what they were to suffer.
The source of the persecution is Satan. He sponsors those who torment and imprison Christians, thus depriving them of freedom to spread the glad tidings of the Lord to dispel darkness of people’s souls. Since Satan is the god of this world (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4), believers must be well prepared for his onslaught as Christians’ witness depopulates his camp.
The reason why God allows the persecution of the believers is “to test” their faith, that is, to prove and to strengthen them in their resolve to keep following the Lord regardless of the odds against them, just as Polycarp did. Fortunately, the testing would not last long, as “ten days” should be considered literally as a brief period. Job was tested and came out victoriously, so would suffering-Christians! It must be pointed out that regardless of Satan’s attack, the Sovereign God is still in control. He limits Satan as he could not go beyond ten days in his torment of Smyrna believers. Indeed, all power belongs to our God!
The Counsel and Promise
“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death” (2:10b-11).
This letter concludes with words of encouragement rather than rebuke or reprimand. The Smyrna believers must continue to be faithful even to the point of death, that is, until their last breath on earth. For the faithful believers, there are two promises.
- Those who overcome, those who remain faithful shall receive the crown of life, the reward of eternal life, that is, life that goes on forever and ever (cf. James 1:12).
- The overcomer shall also be delivered from the second death. The second death is described by the inspired writer of the Apocalypse:
“Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Rev 20:14).
Also, “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev 21:8).
This is the horror of hell from which there is no escape to life of bliss, that is, a total separation from God. The believers who suffered persecution and deprivation because of their Christian witness would not taste of the second death. What a glorious end!
As the Lord ended the Letter to the Ephesian church with these words, so He did again to the church in Smyrna. This registers the fact that it is the responsibility of each believer and the whole church to pay attention to what the Spirit is saying even now to the contemporary church. In effect the Spirit is saying that Christianity is not a bed of roses, and that following Christ means carrying one’s cross daily. To the early church this literally means “Come and die!” Are you prepared to be a Christian witness? Note that in Greek the word for Christian witness and the word for martyr is the same word, martus. This calls for a serious sense of commitment to the Lord, that no matter what happens, a Christian witness would not succumb, but would endure and persevere to the end.
Pergamum: The Worldly Church
12“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives. 14Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. 15Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. 17He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.
Worldliness is addressed as a major theme in the New Testament. The Lord warned the disciples:
If you belong to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you (John 15:19).
Paul also charged Christians:
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
Christians are warned specifically “to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passion, and to live godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). According to James, the religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is. . . “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). The reason he gave is that “friendship with the world is hatred toward God[.] Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). A more poignant statement is penned by John when he asserted in 2 John 2:15-17:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loved the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the craving of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.
The problem of the Pergamum church is worldliness, and it would appear that members of this church never paid attention to the warnings in the passages cited above. The end-result of their neglect was their compromise with the world’s systems. The Pergamum church literally became worldly, and like the Ephesian church, their love for the Lord caved in as a result of worldly pressure.
It is necessary to define in passing, worldliness as simply embracing the sins, values and evil pleasures in the world. The world, (kosmos in Greek) refers to this world’s system that Satan inspiresand controls. That is, the system that seeks to exist independent of God, a spirit of rebellion against God’s will that is diabolical, violent and wicked (cf. Ephesian 6:12). It involves participation in secret cults or orders such as Lodges, and all fraternities, whether local or foreign, where unscriptural oaths are taken, and in which Christian doctrines are compromised and loyalty to Christ is pushed aside. Worldliness rears its ugly head in a variety of ways. In the world of entertainment, it manifests in ungodly lifestyle—lewdness, pornography and homosexuality among others. In the educational system, it is observable in atheism, agnosticism and all shades humanistic philosophy. In medical science, it is evident in the production of illicit drugs and narcotics, killing of unborn babies, euthanasia and cloning. Christians are warned never to associate with such groups mentioned in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
Now back to our exposition of the passage.
The Pergamum Church
The book of Acts has no record of when and who planted the Pergamum church. It is however likely to be one of those churches planted by one of Paul’s associates when the missionary party passed through Mysia, the province where Pergamum was located Acts 16:7-8). It is also probable that the church was planted when Paul spent about three years in Ephesus. Paul, it may be recalled focused on the big cities in his missionary strategy, and Pergamum being Asia’s capital city at the time, would have attracted Paul’s attention to such a prominent place for the purpose of spreading the Gospel.
The City of Pergamum
The Roman writer, Pliny described Pergamum as “by far the most distinguished city in Asia.”
It was Asia’s political capital city as well as the seat of the governor of Asia. Besides, the city could boast of huge library with thousands of volume, second only to that of Alexandria in Egypt; vibrant medical profession and possession of the oldest temple in Asia Minor devoted to emperor worship.
Apart from Caesar’s temple, Pergamum was renown for the temple of Asclepios, the god of healing. This served as a tourist attraction as residents and visitors frequent the place seeking miraculous healing. Asclepios’ symbol, which is the serpent, is still in use today as symbol of medical doctors. There were also temples of Dionysos, Athena, Zeus, whose huge altar “stood on a platform on hill overlooking the city.”
The ancient town is today’s Turkish city of Bergama.
It is important to point out that this Letter is addressed first to the minister through whom the content is delivered to the church. The minister is largely responsible for the texture of the church. Worldliness cannot overrun a church without the pastor yielding to the allurement of the society. However, as we find in Ezekiel 33, the minister would have cleared himself or herself only if the church is forewarned. It is good to remind ourselves of what the Lord says in Ezekiel 33:7-9:
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, ‛O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you so not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.
It is important that the minister would always declare the whole counsel of God even when ministering among those who are bent towards corruption and pursuing the pleasures of this world. The Word of God, the writer of Hebrews reminds us is indeed “sharper than any double-edged sword” Hebrews 4:12). This rhymes with the title or the description Christ gave himself while writing to this church. It is the same Word the Holy Spirit uses to convict the worldly and those who are devilish while claiming to be church workers or Christians.
The Description of Christ
“These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword”(2:12b). As pointed out above, Hebrews 4:12 describes the Word of God as “sharper than any double-edged sword,” and Paul also uses the metaphor “sword” to describe the Word (cf. Eph 6:17). In 2 Thess 2:8, it is written, “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.” Rev. 1:16 also points to the Lord as having “In his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword.” From these passages, it is clear that the sharp, double-edged sword refers to His Word. It is “the” instrument which has the power to shatter the forces of evil and worldliness. The Word is also able to serve as means of God’s judgment as verse 16 says, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” If the Word is sharp, then it can cut asunder, able to split open hardened heart to soften it. This same Word contains the message of love and grace to transform and restore back to the Lord.
The Word of God never carries a dull edge, as it always convicts the worldly and evil-infested hearts through any Spirit-inspired minister with sharpened-tongue.
It is strange that this church would attract the Lord’s commendation for loyalty in spite of her being surrounded and infested by worldliness and Satanic influences—“where Satan has his throne.” This may mean the headquarters of Satanic opposition to Christian faith not only because it served as the seat of heathen temples but also because of the imperial worship enforced by the State. This is a clear case of Satan working through political leaders who oppose the Gospel and who use State machineries to oppress, persecute, suppress and even kill believers. The phrase may also refer to the worship of gods, such as Asklepios, the god of healing), mentioned earlier. Her temple was filled with nonpoisonous snakes who crawled on the floor, while those seeking healing strain nerves to roll on the same floor in order to get a touch of the reptiles. It was reported that during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, “some Christian stonecutters were executed for refusing to carve an image of Asklepios.”
The church is commended for three things. First, the church remained true to [Christ’s] name. Rather than bowing to Satan through imperial cult, they remained true to the name that is above every name, Jesus Christ the Lord. The Christians refused to confess, “Caesar is lord,” which of course becomes an offense to the State. The believers were not ashamed of Christ in such an “adulterous and sinful generation” (cf. Mark 8:38), a mark of true loyalty to the Lord.
Secondly, the church was commended for being pure in doctrine—they did not renounce their faith in the Lord. The church held fast to the truth of God’s Word through constant study and practice. The central truths of the Christian faith was not compromised by them. The faith in the Lord denounces all forms of ungodliness and every form of evil, and it is sufficient for all challenges of life.
Thirdly, the church stood fast and maintained her faithfulness to the Lord in times of persecution—“even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (2:13b). The identity of Antipas is not known, but he must have been a leading figure in Pergamum church. According to early Christian tradition and as cited by Robertson, Antipas was placed inside a brazen bull and slowly roasted to death.
The word, witness and martyr mean the same thing, that is, someone willing to lay down his or her life for what he or she believed to be true regardless of what happens. William Barclay has this to say:
In the early church . . . Witness meant so often martyrdom. An early Christian knew quite well what he was doing; as soon as he became a Christian he had made himself liable to death. Here is a rebuke to us. There are so many who are prepared to demonstrate their Christianity in Christian circles, but who are equally prepared to play down their Christianity in circles where Christianity is met with ridicule, with contempt, with indifference or with opposition. The Christian must remember that the word martus means equally martyr and witness, and that Christian witness can be, and often must be, a costly thing.
The Gospel, when preached and lived out in some domains controlled and inspired by Satan always sparks serious opposition and persecution, such as we experience in Nigeria, Indonesia, India and similar cultures from time to time, particularly where opposing religious groups predominate. Our Lord warned us in several passages that we would be persecuted for His name’s sake—Matt. 10:17-18; 24:9; Luke 21:12; John 15:20-21; 16:2. Yet, the more the pressure and problems come, the greater the grace of our Lord to sustain and strengthen the faithful ones. The Word of God through Peter encourages us thus: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:12-13).
The Concern of the Lord
It is ironic that a church that received such commendations as cited above would also be tongue-lashed by the Lord, saying, “I have a few things against you.” While only few members—“You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam”—were responsible for the rebuke received by this church, yet, the whole membership must repent. The contemporary church must note that where even a few members associate with secret cults or fraternize with Lucifer in any form, yet, our Lord holds such biblical aberration in the House of God against the entire membership. The reason why the Lord must have been so concerned was because Pergamum church did not discipline or call such members to order for them to repent.
The false teaching of Balaam, an Old Testament character whose story is found in Numbers 22-25 is instructive. When he failed to bring curses on God’s people he devised another method by teaching the Moabite king Balak to “entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality” (verse 14b). If he could weaken them and corrupt them morally and spiritually, then the Moabites could then overpower them and possibly destroy them before their country could be overrun by the Israelites. The plan by Balaam was successful to some extent as many of the Israelites fell into the trap. The Israelites became unequally yoked with unbelievers and became corrupted, but God quickly intervened, but not until twenty-four thousand strong men lost their lives to purge the whole nation of evil of corruption and moral degradation (cf. Num 25:4-5, 9)!
Like the Israelites, the Pergamum church must have compromised similarly to allow some members to engage in immoral lifestyle and idol worship alongside the worship of Christ. The church probably baptized some members who never repented of their sin, and also allowed false Christians or some evil people to hold key positions in the church. Christians are warned against associating with evil people, or be unequally yoked with Satanic agents and unbelievers in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17! Jude 10-11 referred to Balaam’s evil plan, and Peter also warned believers about the evil effect of that greedy prophet in his Letter:
With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accused brood! They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness. But he was rebuked for his wrongdoing by a donkey—a beast without speech—who spoke with a man’s voice and restrained the prophet’s madness (2 Peter 2:14-16).
Modern churches are warned by such passages to desist from allowing Satanic agents, adulterous and the worldly to hold sway. Also, steps must be taken to discipline those who will not repent.
In the second place, the Lord rebuked the Pergamum church for allowing few members “who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” We have considered the source of Nicolitans in Chapter One. Mainly, they taught their followers to participate in pagan rituals and also engaged the services of their members to seduce unwary souls into life of immorality and idolatry. Again, it is important to point out that, only few members were involved in such evil practice, yet, the Lord held the whole church responsible for the heresy. It is not enough to recognize the problem, but extremely important to take decisive action against such errors, as failure to do that would be considered as tolerating evil, and shying away from necessary church discipline against the arrogant and false members!
The Lord’s Command
“Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (verse 16). This is a sharp command from the Lord. “Repent” has to so with change of mind that should result in change of behavior. Failure to turn around, the Lord warned would result into severe judgment against the few members who refuse to repent. “The sword of my mouth” is the Word, and as Jeremiah 23:29 says, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” When the Lord fights with His word, the person becomes restless, just like vagabond Cain, placed under perpetual mental agony until there is repentance.
The announcement of the visit by the Lord to modern churches is not be taken seriously by some people. But we must consider the Word: “I will soon come to you and will fight against them.” He is alive and on the throne, and His purifying visitation may be in the form of sudden circumstances against the rebellious far beyond human understanding. When the Corinthians abused the Lord’s Supper, it resulted into severe illness and death of some of the members (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-30). The Lord is watching his churches, and when Divine visitation happens, may we be found worthy of his Divine benediction rather than censorship.
The Lord’s Counsel
The conclusion of the Lord’s Letter in verse 17 to Pergamum church is similar to that of the others we have considered. The statement He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches points to the grave importance of paying attention. Again, as in the other Letters, “To him who overcomes” points to believers who in the Christian race, persevere to the end.
There are three promises to the overcomers, namely, the right to eat some of the hidden manna, that is, Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life (cf. John 6:48-51), which is unlike the manna the Israelites ate while in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:14ff). This spiritual food sustains the faithful ones, as it also symbolizes all the spiritual blessings in the Lord (cf. Eph 1:3). It is the manna that ministers to man’s emptiness, loneliness, lack of purpose and significance. This bread or manna is “hidden” to those who are in the grip of Satan and worldliness, because “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). In a sense Christ is hidden from the worldly.
Secondly, I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it. The “white stone” stands for many things in the ancient world. It was given to deserving personalities in the ancient world as an invitation to entertainment events. It was also used as an emblem for honorable discharge from gladiatorial combat, while it also stood for magical amulets bearing divine names.
Also, in ancient times, at the end of any trial, an accused would be given a white stone by the jurors if he was innocent, while he would be given a black stone if guilty.
This must be a kind of “heavenly ticket” issued to the overcomers whose names are clearly written on it, and with it entrance into the heavenly celebration is assured and secured. The new name is possibly the designated name given by the Lord as a mark of being His property and to identify the overcomers at the heavenly banquet. The new name “known only to him who receives it” indicates the uniqueness of each believer, and that no proxy would be allowed into the heavenly celebration. Abram was given a new name, Abraham, and Simon got a new name of Peter, that is, rock, as a pointer to their transformation.
The Pergamum church had a choice to make between severe judgment or commendation, and so are the modern churches. We must steer clear of entangling with the world and evil, so that we can experience abundance of God’s blessings.
Thyatira: The Compromising Church
18“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. 19I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are doing more than you did at first. 20Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. 23I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds. 24Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): 25Only hold on to what you have until I come. 26To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations. 27He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery—just as I have received authority from my Father. 28I will also give him the morning star. 29He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
We live in a world of compromise today, and even the Church is not insulated from this danger. Today, some church traditions no longer not see anything wrong with the clergy living in homosexual and lesbian relationship, while those who condemn these unbiblical and ungodly practices are labeled “primitive” or hardliners! In some traditions, those who are living in polygamous relationship are tolerated as church leaders. In some others, adulterous pastors and leaders who jump on irresponsible women, and those who deflower young girls within the household of God are shameless about such sinful lifestyle! There are church workers in some tradition who commit crime of sex with children who are covered up by their superiors! Others also do not see anything wrong in having secret cult as church workers and even as leaders! Well known swindlers, political rogues, fake and illicit drug barons are given undue recognition because they tithe and underwrite church’s bills. Also, loosely-dressed, heavily face-lifted women and men of vanity are allowed to sing in the choir! Such permissiveness has been plaguing the Church for many years at a great price—the weakening of her witness in the world full of all kinds of compromising stances for political gains, promotions, wealth at all cost, to secure jobs, to pass examinations and to be popular among other reasons. Lord, please, visit your Church with refining fire of your Word in the power of the Holy Spirit!
Unlike the Ephesian, Smyrnian and Pergamum churches whose loyalty to Christ enabled them to be true to the faith in spite of serious challenges and assault of evil, the Thyatira church “situation was far more serious. Here not merely a small minority was indifferent, but large numbers had actually yielded to the demoralizing influences of false teaching.”
No wonder this church, though the least or the smallest of the Seven cities received the longest and the most serious criticisms.
The Thyatira Church
As is the case with Smyrna and Pergamum churches, the relationship between Paul and the founding of Thyatira church is not in the Acts. We are however told of Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God, [whom] the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14). Since her household was part of the congregation that listened to Paul, and all of whom were baptized, it is likely she took the Gospel back to her city of Thyatira. We can infer that Thyatira church was an outreach of Paul’s ministry while he was preaching in Philippi.
The City of Thyatira
Thyatira was not as popular as the other cities, it was a thriving manufacturing center for dying of fabrics and metal works. The city located on the main north-south road connecting Laodicea, Smyrna and Pergamum, and thus became a flourishing commercial center. This gave birth to so many trade unions or guilds that are dedicated to patron Roman gods or goddesses. There were guilds for linen workers, bakers, tanners, leather workers, dyers and bronze smiths among others.
There was no one engaged in any business who did not belong to one of these many guilds, and part of the requirement of meeting and membership is the worship offered to the patron god or goddess, feasting on meat sacrificed to idols and sexual indulgence by couples within the temple precinct. That was the serious challenge to committed Christians living in Thyatira.
The Description of Christ
“These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze” (18c).
The title, Son of God, portrays Christ as of one essence with the Father, a title of deity, unlike “Son of Man” that depicted him as the humiliating Servant Messiah. The title points to the fact of His unquestioning authority to judge erring church like Thyatira. The Lord whose eyes are like the blazing fire points to his burning holiness, piecing vision capable of seeing any compromising deeds in the dark, or behind the scene, such as deceptive and seductive worship. Nothing can be hidden from his penetrating sharp eyes, as He is the One “who searches hearts and minds” (verse 23), even when church leaders failed to discern Satanic influences within the household of Christ. Then, whose feet are like the burnished bronze portrays the Lord’s brilliantly glowing feet, able to stamp out every impurity, and every form of seductive teaching, and able to crush all false teachers of compromise and their master, Satan. This description of Christ should give modern, compromising churches and their leaders a wake-up call to the reality of His judgment. Leaders may be able to pull wool on the eyes of the unsuspecting members, but the all-seeing eyes of the Lord is upon any the evil deed going on in the church and by any leader, and punishment awaits deceivers if they fail to repent.
The Lord, before sharing His concerns commended Thyatira church for four things in verse 19. First, He commended them for their deeds. This is because they showed love, possibly not only for the Lord and fellow members, but also for non-members in terms of care-giving and acceptance of others of different background. Thyatira church fared better than Ephesian church in this regard. Secondly, they were commended for their faith. This is because their fidelity was genuine in the Lord. In other words, they were steadfast in their faith and commitment.
In the third place, their service, that is, meeting felt-needs of fellow members and others was noted by the Lord. Service to the hungry, the homeless, the poor, the prisoners, and refugees earned them commendation. Fourthly, their advancement was recognized—they were “doing more than [they] did at first. This indicates a significant growth in the ministries of the church, possibly growing in grace and knowledge of the Lord.
The Concern of the Lord
While the church in Thyatira appeared to outsiders as dynamic, there was more than met the eyes. The all-knowing Lord of the Church discerned the internal decay that was destroying this church. The Lord could not hide His feelings of disgust and disappointment. The complaint against this church started with the leadership as the singular pronoun in “I have this against you” indicates. It means the leader was responsible for allowing the error to take root in the church. The charge is: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of foods sacrificed to idols” (v. 20).
The serious sin of toleration, or rather compromise became the albatross of this church as it is with many contemporary churches. Thyatira church tolerated false teaching, seduction, fornication and idolatry, and these are re-enacted in several modern churches today. Jezebel was not necessarily the name of this false prophetess, but just like Ahab’s vile and wicked wife of old—(see the summary in 2 Kings 16:30-31), this woman called herself a prophetess, a self-proclaimed teacher. We find so many Christians, who probably went to some half-baked Bible schools floated by some religious charlatans, and within days call themselves pastors, prophets/tesses, teachers, bishops and all titles they may coin for themselves. It is a shame that churches would not examine them critically, but would be swayed by their oratory and false charisma. It is important to ask serious questions as to who discipled such people, and for how long, and where they served before coming to join another church. In other words, check their background and demand concrete testimonial or letters of transfer from their former churches.
The acts of sexual immorality and idolatry were part of the stock in trade in Thyatira. One could not be a member of any trade union without participating in the sinful orgies, and possibly some Christians did not want to be misfits, they thus simply followed the false teaching. The philosophical dualism of the contemporary Greek culture taught people that “spirit is good and flesh is evil,” thus, whatever one does with his body mattered little so far as the spirit that God is concerned about is not touched, or involved in the sinful lifestyle. There was also the possibility that the false teacher was teaching the antinomianism, the that view of those who teach that the more one sins, the more God’s grace abounds! “God forbid,” Paul exclaims Rom. 6), and we too must affirm this on daily basis!
What is idolatry? It is anything that takes the first place in our hearts, whatever consumes one’s mind, soul and body, what one is passionate about—a job, pleasure, self, sex, sports, position, possessions, family, power and the like. If any of these is placed ahead of God in order to be socially acceptable and to prosper by all means, it has become idolatry, and it is so easy to be influenced and then compromise one’s faith. Why would anyone gain things of this world and then miss heaven?
It is important to point out that temptations would come the way of Christians, and that Christians are capable of committing the sins mentioned, but woe betide whoever led others into such sins. Listen to the serious warning of our Lord concerning misleading others into sin in Matthew 18:6-9:
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
The usage of “little ones” has to do with spiritual children or believers, while the imagery of cutting one’s hand or foot, or gouging one’s eyes, point to the decisive, drastic action that must be taken in dealing with sin. Jezebel met her terrible, horrifying death in the end (cf. 2 Kings 9:30-37), and so would all false teachers and seducers end in hell fire, and even before they die, their conscience would torment them daily.
Warning to the False Teacher
Due to the nature of our Lord to be patient with sinners, opportunity for repentance was given to the Jezebel-like woman (cf. 2 Pet 3:9). This warning comes before the general command to the entire church. The gracious Lord gave the seducer time to repent of her immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols (v. 21). It was a shame that she refused to repent—but she is unwilling. She loved darkness rather than light see John 3:19). The Lord keeps giving opportunity to bad leaders for repentance in the churches, through various preaching and teaching coming from the pulpits and from guest preachers, just as the Lord gave the Israelites time to repent of their unfruitfulness (cf. Luke 13:1-9). May the Lord grant such people the spirit of repentance early within the period of grace.
For refusing to repent, severe divine judgment was the verdict, and these are fourfold. First, she is to be cast upon a bed of suffering. This probably means some kind of debilitating sickness such as HIV/AIDS type of incurable diseases, possibly matching her sin, thus reaping what she sowed (cf. Gal 6:7-8)! Secondly, those who gave in to her seduction and lifestyle would equally suffer intensely. It is really terrible to see the ordeal—psychological, emotional, social, mental and physical torture those with gross lifestyle go through in life! It is only through genuine confession and repentance that they could be spared! Thirdly, there was also severe judgment for those who followed her teaching—her children, who fell to her seduction, and the verdict is death! We should recall that those who tempted the Holy Spirit in regard to false giving towards the growth and upkeep the early church were condemned and died instantly (cf. Acts 5:1-11); while those who messed with the Lord’s Supper experienced terrible sicknesses and even death (cf. 1 Cor 11:30). No one should be presumptuous that it cannot happen today, as it is just the grace of God and the Holy Spirit working through preachers and intercessors who are delaying or restraining such severe judgment.
The reason why the Lord would judge this church and her seducer is to the extent that “all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each according to your deeds” (v. 23b). This shows that our loving Lord is not arbitrary in his judgment. He knew those in the Thyatira church that were faithful, and they would be rewarded according to their deeds, and they would be treated fairly and justly. In other words, none of their good deeds would go without the express reward of the Lord, while those bent towards evil would receive severe judgment. This assurance is reinforced in Revelation 22:12-15.
The Command of the Lord
And now to the church, the Lord has command: “Now, I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets (I will not impose any other burden on you): Only hold to what you have until I come” (vv. 24-25). This is a word of comfort to those who did not fall into the trap of the false teaching. This is what is referred to as the remnant—those who stoutly remain loyal to the Lord in the midst of heresy and unfaithfulness. Satan’s so-called deep secrets refer to Satan-inspired teachings espoused by the false teacher, diabolical mysteries that are hidden from view of light, so-called knowledge beyond what God has revealed in His Word, and by His true servants.
This teaching may also refer to the gnosticism disseminated by those claim that they possessed gnosis, (the Greek word for “knowledge”). They taught their followers that salvation required extra knowledge or deep secret knowledge about God and reality. Some of them even “boasted that it was by entering the stronghold of Satan that believers could learn the limits of his power and emerge victorious.”
The misguided prophetess of Thyatira must have encouraged the Thyatira church members to participate in pagan rites and loose lifestyle since evil could not alter their salvation and life in the Spirit. There are modern day Satan’s so-called deep secrets espoused by the theosophical societies, such as the Grail Movement, Encancar, Rocicrucians, all secret cults, and the like that Christians must steer clear of, as they reject the final revelation of God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians must realize that all heresies boast of superior spiritual knowledge or perceptions published in fat books, but of no value for spiritual development.
To the true believers who reject Satanic teachings and refused to be lured into Jezebelic lifestyles of gross immorality, the Lord promised them freedom from extra burden. This probably means since they suffered ridicule by the false teacher and their followers, such would stop, as great relief follows the severe judgment that would at last come the way of the evil people. They are also to “hold on to what you have until I come,” that is, to continue to be committed to the Lord regardless. It may not be easy as the use of the strong word krateō (hold fast) indicates, that until the Second Coming of the Lord, true believers must not yield to Satanic intimidations and overtures.
The Counsel and Promise of the Lord
Verses 26-29 contain the counsel and promise of the caring Lord to the faithful remnant in Thyatira church. “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end” refers to the steadfast and committed believers who practiced deeds different from the false teachings and Satanic heresies, that is, against Jezebel lifestyle. The Lord promised them two things. First, they would be given “authority over the nations”—they would reign with the Lord over the nations throughout eternity, they would be given authority and positions. This is probably the fulfillment of the promise or prophecy in Psalm 2:7-9, ruling the nations with an iron scepter, reference to Revelations 12:5 and 19:15.
Secondly, the overcomers would be given the morning star, that is, Christ Himself. Revelation 22:16 describes the triumphant Lord as “the bright and morning star,” thus, overcomers would reflect Christ’s glory that never fades, and would experience Him fully when He appears at His Second Coming to the chagrin and shame of Satan’s followers.
The message again concludes with words coming from the Holy Spirit to all the churches that false teachings by anyone would receive severe judgment, while those who are steadfast in the Lord would be greatly rewarded. May the contemporary churches and believers heed such strong warning before it is too late.
Sardis: The Dead Church
1To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
“Wake-up call” is very familiar to those who travel and spend their nights in hotels. The hotel staffs usually ask their guests if they would like to be woken up at a certain time. This is to help an exhausted guest who wants to meet a scheduled meeting, or catch a flight not to oversleep. “Wake-up call” can also be an experience of rude shock, when someone is suddenly jolted or alerted to very serious danger, either while the person is driving on the highway, or even sleeping in his or her house. “Wake-up calls” come as serious warnings to be careful, or else something terrible could happen. Students do get such “wake-up calls.” It could come as a rude shock to playful, pleasure-loving new student from high school who may not realize that college is not as cheap as perceived! Query from a boss can be a wake-up call for a worker who is not serious about his or her responsibility at work.
There are many churches that received wake-up calls from the Lord of the Church in the early centuries, and of course many churches are receiving similar warnings today. Such wake-up calls came from the Lord God Almighty to His people of old when He would send His prophets to warn them about their objects of confidence. Their empty boasts then were in the Temple or the Ark of the Covenant. They held that whenever they have such sacred objects with them in times of war, no evil would befall them even in the midst of spiritual bankruptcy. No wonder, the Ark of God was captured by the Philistines, and the Temple was destroyed many times over, and just one wall known as the “Wailing Wall” remains today as a reminder of many “wake-up calls” they ignored! We have considered the wake up call to one of the churches, the Ephesian Church (Rev 2:1-7). The warning was that if the church did not return to her first love for her Lord and Savior, she would have her “lampstand” removed. That is, she would no longer be effective witness for the Lord thereby becoming as useless as a stagnant river or a lake that has no life in it!
The City of Sardis
The city was the capital of the ancient Lydian kingdom that was said to be famous for its industries of farming, dying and garment factories. The city’s famous goddess was Cybele. She was worshiped in Ephesus as Artemis or Diana, and she was believed to have the power to restore life to the dead.
It was a city that stood 1,500 feet above the valley floor, thus it looked impregnable by outside forces, yet it had twice been conquered due to laxity on the part of the guards. It was such a city of wealth and fame, but the inner decay as symbolized by overconfidence and presumptions cut short its enduring fame. The fame of that city turned into an ancient proverbial saying that, “to capture the acropolis of Sardis” equals “to do the impossible.”
It is unlikely that modern Sart in Turkey would have the kind of wealth and fame of the ancient Sardis.
The Church at Sardis
This church is probably an outreach of Paul missionary efforts in Asia, particularly while he was in Ephesus. There is no record of when it was planted in Acts, or by whom. As in others, it is possible Paul’s disciples who engaged in textile trade must have taken the Gospel to this city.
The Description of the Lord
“Him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (v. 1b).
This is another description of the Lord, and this may refer to Isaiah 11:2 where “the Branch from Jesse” the prophesied Messiah would be endowed with the full manifestation of the Spirit. The seven-fold description is
The Spirit of the Lord. . ., the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.
The “seven stars” stand for the seven elders or messengers who represent the seven churches. This shows the Lord of glory working through godly pastors to get His messages across to the churches. This calls for serious thought for pastors and church leaders to be open to the full manifestation of the power of the Holy Spiri
The Concern of the Lord
The word of the Lord of history came so strongly to this church as it is still doing today. He is the One whose Spirit is at work today through the “seven stars,” that is, the messengers or pastors to be His witnesses in His churches. One of the fearful facts about the Lord is His knowledge of each person’s as well as each status. He says, “I know your deeds” (v. 8a). This fact should be scary to anyone who claims to belong to the Lord. It is one thing to appear “Christian,” it is another to be a committed Christian, but no one can deceive the Lord. We can pull wool on the eyes of people by engaging in all kinds of religious rituals and activities, but our Maker knows us so intimately, thus we cannot play game with him. Let us consider some pertinent points in regard to the Lord’s concern.
1. Sardis Church Reputation Does Not Match the Realities
The Lord said about Sardis church: “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (v. 1c). The members of the church probably reveled in the popularity of their city, considered themselves as socially acceptable, and believed that various activities in the church were all that count. The Lord who measures one’s spiritual temperature knew their spiritual bankruptcy. In other words, their activities blinded-folded them from coming to realization that those things do not qualify as yardsticks to measure one’s spirituality. The Lord said they were dead in sin, as Ephesian 2:1 describes those who are spiritually dead—“dead in your transgressions and sins.” This means Sardis church was actually filled with unregenerated, worldly, uncommitted people. How can we know when a church is dying—what are the signs? John MacArthur, Jr. shares his insights:
A church is in danger when it is content to rest on its past laurels,
when it is more concerned with liturgical forms than spiritual reality, when it focuses on curing social ills rather than changing people’s hearts through preaching the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, when it is more concerned with what men think than what God said, when it is more enamored with doctrinal creeds and systems of theology than with the Word of God, or when it loses its conviction that every word of the Bible is the word of God Himself. No matter what its attendance, no matter how impressive its buildings, no matter what its status in the community, such a church, having denied the only source of spiritual life, is dead.
2. Sardis Church is Sleepy and Weak
Verse 2 says, “Wake- up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die . . .” The Amplified Bible puts it thus: “Rouse yourself and keep awake.” The sentence is in the imperative, showing the seriousness with which the Lord issues the command. It is also in the present tense, indicating the constancy with which each believer must watch and be alert spiritually! You only wake up someone who is sleepy. There must have been many who were spiritual “zombies” in this church. The needed spiritual alertness was not there. When it comes to being strong spiritually, the majority of modern Christians would be found wanting. To strengthen what remains, one needs to be serious about Bible study, prayer, active participation in Christian fellowship and service in God’s household. The “small faith like mustard seed” must be stirred up.
3. Sardis Church is not Satisfactory to the Lord
The Lord said in verse 2b, “I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Christian deeds are many, which James says we should show as proof of our faith in the Lord. Some of the deeds the Lord would want to see are growth in His knowledge through Bible study and prayer. If you don’t have time for what makes God happy, when again would you ever find time? How then would He be happy with you? Tithing in the church is one of those deeds. Showing mercy to others, and loving in deeds is another. What are the things you are doing in your church that the Lord would count towards your Divine Ledger? The issue of completeness is important, as going half-way in serving the Lord and performing Christian deeds half-heartedly makes God, the Righteous Judge unhappy! Christians must never “sow sparingly” or “give reluctantly or under compulsion” as we are warned in 2 Corinthians 9:6-11. Jeremiah 48:10a says, “A curse on him who is lax in doing the Lord’s work!” May we never be cursed by the Lord.
4. Sardis Church has not Been Obedient
Verse 3a says, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent.” The members of Sardis church must have been loaded with God’s spiritual blessings through the ministry of their pastor. The Lord invested so much in their lives—the urging, warning, teaching, counseling, persuasion that come from the Word of God, through our pastors and visiting preachers, as well as our Bible teachers are what we have “received and heard.” What remains? Obedience! To obey is better than sacrifice, says the Word of the Lord through Samuel to Saul. In other words, the best sacrifice is one’s obedience to His Word. Strangely today, rather than listening and obeying the voice of God, some modern Christians would rather obey their own reasoning because they think they are smart. Rather than obeying God’s Word, some so-called Christians would rather place man-made constitution above God’s Word in matters of faith and practice.
Verse 3b ends with a serious warning: “But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.” If revival or spiritual awakening fails to take place in the life of the backsliding Christian, there is imminent judgment coming. The words “like a thief” carries the idea of sudden, unannounced visitation of the Righteous Judge. This is the same warning to the modern church that fails to make amends.
The Lord’s Commendation
One good thing about this church is in verse 4: “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” Who wouldn’t want to be counted among these elect? To be soiled or defiled is to be polluted, to be stained by the immoral lifestyles around, as clothes or garments stand for character. The “few people” is otherwise referred to as “remnant of God”– people who remain loyal to the Lord in the midst of spiritual lukewarmness. They remained totally committed in the midst of moral decadence and widespread godlessness. The remnants are like the seven thousand who never bowed the knee to Baal during the time of Elijah. The Christian remnants are the people who are the reason why some churches have not become archeological show cases!
The remnants would also “walk with” the Lord, meaning they will experience a closer fellowship, intimate relationship with Him. The Lord would also dress them up, He will replace their own garment with a divine pure ones as they are considered worthy of such an honor. The parable of the “Wedding Garment” in Matthew 22 and that of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15 should remind Christians that the Lord puts on the saved sinner a new robe of righteousness.
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out their name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (3:5-6).
The Lord concludes His message to Sardis church with some promises to the committed Christians, that is, the overcomers. First, they will be dressed in white which represents purity and holiness—the dress they would wear at the marriage Supper of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 19:7-9). Secondly, the overcomers would have their names permanently inscribed in the book of life, a kind of Divine Ledger or citizen-register of the people of God. The book contains the names of those who would have joyful vindication at the last judgment (Rev. 20:15), and enter the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:27). It is important to point out that those who reject Jesus Christ would not have their names in the book of life (cf. Exod 32:33). Thirdly, the overcomers’ names would be affirmed before the Father and His angels. This affirmation of acknowledgement is an attestation against satanic accusation of believers, thus guarantying the believer’s eternal security. This is a confirmation of the Lord’s promise in Matthew 10:32: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.”
The Lord ends His message to this church again in verse 6, “He who has an ear, let him [or her] hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Any dead church like Sardis or believer who is lukewarm to spiritual things must hear the warning to avoid the impending judgment. May we all hear what the Spirit is saying now before it is too late.
Philadelphia: The Faithful Church
7”To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9I will make those who are synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon those who live on the earth. 11I am coming soon, Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
While the Philadelphian church is not perfect, yet it did not receive any condemnation from the Lord. Many preachers have reasons to reckon this church as a role model for churches seeking to please the Lord. This letter goes to the church in Philadelphia like others through the angel, the pastor.
The Philadelphia Church
The Book of Acts does not have any information about when and by whom this church was planted. The probable source would point to Paul when he was in Ephesus with his companions. There were probably other cities where Paul and his disciples preached the gospel besides the Seven that represented the rest.
The City of Philadelphia
The city of Philadelphia was founded by Attalus II, and was named after his nickname, Philadelphus – “brother love,” because of his loyalty to his brother, King Eumenes of Pergamum. The city was a prosperous small commercial centre, mostly for the promotion of Hellenistic culture. It was a centre of worship of the god Dionysius, and other temples for the many Greaco-Roman gods. The city earned the title, “gateway to the East” due to its location that linked several important trade routes. The city was however subject to earthquakes, and the tremor of 17 AD forced the inhabitants to live outside the city.
The city was renamed Neocaesarea—“Caesar’s new city” as a tribute to Tiberius’s disaster relief granted to Philadelphia.
The old Philadelphia is now modern Alasehir in Turkey.
Description of Christ
“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open” (3:7b).
The descriptions of Christ here are quite different from the previous ones recorded. The descriptions are mostly Old Testament titles. He who is holy is God’s unique nature, that is, He is without sin and His character is unblemished, thus this New Testament Messianic title—“The Holy One of God” is identified even by a terrified demon in Mark 1:24 to denote Jesus Christ’s deity (cf. Luke 1:35; John 6:69; 1 Pet 1:15). The Lord Jesus is also described as the One who is true—alēthinos. This word is used to distinguish what is genuine from the counterfeit. Thus, Jesus Christ stands out as the authentic and true Savior, in the midst of religious perversion and falsehood.
Thirdly, the Lord is described as One who holds the key of David. This Messianic title appears in Isaiah 22:22 to denote One with sovereign authority who can admit or refuse entry into the Kingdom of God. In Scripture, the “key” is a unique symbolism that stands for authority (cf. Rev 9:1; 20:1; Matt 16:19). The Lord has unchallengeable authority because He possesses the keys to salvation and blessing, as well as the right to unlock the grave and release its captives (cf. Rev. 1:18). The Lord’s omnipotence is seen in His ability to open and no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. The opportunity to be saved is assured in Him, but when the opportunity is missed, there can be no more advocacy. Also, for the faithful church and committed believers, there is open door to various opportunities for missions and evangelism, as well as service in his vineyard. The city of Philadelphia was strategically located, a border city surrounded by Lydia, Mysia, and Phrygia, thus opportunities to spread the Gospel abound. This is a poignant reminder to many of our city churches with tremendous opportunities for witnessing to multitudes of people of all background. It becomes imperative that churches would seek God’s face as to various opportunities to make His name known to all around—(cf. 1 Cor 16:8-9; 2 Cor 2:12 and Col 4:2-3).
Verses 8-11a contain words of commendation for the Philadelphian church. The all-knowing Lord begins with the knowledge of the church’s little strength or power. This church was probably small in number and resources, yet it must have made powerful evangelistic impact on their city. The church was also commended for her obedience—you have kept my word, or the Lord’s command as in verse 10a. The church studied the Word, lived it and proclaimed it to others within and without. Closely related to her obedience to God’s Word is her patient endurance. Thirdly, the church was commended for unashamed confession of Christ—not denied my name, in the midst of tremendous challenges to do otherwise.
The Lord then promised this church so much. The first promise which is in verse 8 is that of “open door” to greater opportunities that nothing on earth can hinder. Verse 9 contains the second promise of victory over their enemies—“I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you.” This recalls the Lord’s statement about such people in Smyrna (cf. 2:9). The early churches in various cities faced various kinds of opposition from the Judaizers. The Lord called them “synagogue of Satan,” because Satan was really inspiring them. They are simply aliens in God’s household. Paul defined true Jews in Romans 2:28-29,
A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.
A Jew, to God, is therefore one who truly believes in Him and His promises including the promise of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ as prophesied in the Old Testament.
The Promises of the Lord
Verses 9-10, 12—“I will make those who are synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth. . . Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name.
In consequence of the above commendation based on the faithfulness and commitment of the believers, the Lord promised them several rewards. Modern believers must realize that when we are faithful, we have more to gain from the Lord whose promises never fail. First, those Jews who persecuted them would be humbled before the saints. It is very likely such Jews would become Christians themselves, and would come to realize that they were wrong, and would then submit themselves to the leadership and discipleship of the believers. It is possible the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10 and that of Romans 11:26 when natural Israelites would confess the Lordship of Christ would be fulfilled. These latter day saints would in turn seek the tutorship of believers who suffered persecution and rejection in the hands of the same former non-believing Jews.
The second promise in verse 10 reads: “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” Because the believers in Philadelphia excelled in their faith and commitment to the Lord, He promised them a great deliverance. The promise is: they will be kept from the hour of trial. Few facts are apparent in the promise, namely, it is yet in the future, second, it is limited—for an hour. Thirdly, it is expository, it will expose “those who live on the earth”—that is, the unbelievers, for who they are, and fourthly, it is a worldwide event, no one would escape the scrutiny. The examination would be invigilated by the heavenly hosts, the examiners who cannot compromise or be bribed.
Most interpreters agree that this trial or “tribulation” as the KJV renders it is described in chapters 6-19. Related passages alluding to this period are: Isa. 13:6-13; 17:4-11; Dan. 9:27; 12:1; Zec. 14:1-4 and Matthew 24:9-31. There are those who believe the trial or tribulation occurred between 95 and 325 AD; while some believe it is the struggle with the world and Satan occurring between Christ’s first and second comings. Those who see it as future event consider it as the trial that will happen in the last seven years of the end of human history. There is also the view that God would keep the overcomers from the hour of trial through what is known as rapture, that is, the catching up of the faithful to meet Christ in the air before the wrath of God begins.
The Lord’s promise is also predicated on the fact that His coming is imminent as verse 11a emphasizes—I am coming soon. This coming is definitely to deliver the believers, to justify them, that is, to let the wrath to come pass over them. The soon has to do with the suddenness of His coming for His church. This can happen any time. This calls for constant readiness to meet the triumphant Lord. Can we also say, Maranatha,–Come, Lord Jesus!
The third promise in verse 12 is that Christ will make [the victor] a pillar in the temple of [His] God. This is not a literal pillar since Rev. 21:22 says there will be no temple in the Holy city. The pillar thus symbolizes stability, strength, durability and permanence. It also stands for honor, a monument—being in the Hall of Fame in the heavenly Kingdom. It may be recalled that an earthquake drove inhabitants of Philadelphia outside the city due to aftershocks. The promise here is that Christians would not have to move out of the heavenly city as nothing can shake its foundation, nor shake the believers.
Fourthly, the Lord promised to write on [believers] the name of God. This promise denotes ownership and belonging. They would carry the image and character of God around. Fifthly, the overcomers are promised eternal citizenship of heavenly Kingdom as the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem would also be inscribed on them. Lastly, the Lord’s new name would also be conferred on the believers. This again represents His character, His fullness, but, no one knows what the name is. Rev 19:12 gives a clue: “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.” There is therefore no need for unnecessary speculation as to what the name is. The glorious names He is known for in the Scripture are more comforting and assuring. Again, He has been given a name that is above every name as Phil 2:9 tells us, and it is that glorious name at which all knees must bow, and every tongue confess Him as Lord of all. Believers are the only ones to whom that wonderful name would be given.
The Command and Counsel
It is fitting to conclude this study with verse 11b and 13—“Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. . . He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Faithful churches and believers must hold fast to their commitment, to their evangelistic and missionary zeal, to the studying of and meditation on God’s Word, engagement in deeds that will glorify the Lord and bring blessings to mankind. It is also important that believers must not deny the Lord in whatever circumstances they find themselves, even when persecution and hardship become their lot. The crown is the “crown of life” as Rev. 2:10 defines it. This is the reward for faithfulness and endurance. Paul calls it “the crown of righteousness in 2 Timothy 4:8 while 1 Peter 5:4 calls it “the crown of glory.” The Spirit has spoken and it is important that we pay closer attention to what the Spirit of truth is saying.
Laodicea: The Lukewarm Church
14”To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. 21To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
We have come to the last Letter, and this goes to a church that is lackadaisical and just floating with the current. The church was lukewarm, that is, it was half-committed to the Lord. This is the only church that the Lord had nothing good to say about, in spite of their various “churchianity”—flurries of activity that show to the outside world a semblance of spiritual life. This is simply the worst of the seven churches, “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” Paul charged Christians to have nothing to do with such a church (2 Tim 3:5). We begin this study with the origin of the Laodicean church.
The Church in Laodicea
Just like some others, the origin of this church did not enter the notes of Luke in Acts. It is probable the church was planted by Paul’s associates while he was stationed in Ephesus. Paul mentioned Laodicea in his Letter to Colossae (cf. Col 2:1), thus, its origin could be traced to his disciples, possibly Nimpha or Archippus (cf. Col. 4:13-17).
The City of Laodicea
Laodicea was one of the major cities in a metropolis with Colossae, about ten miles to the east, and Hierapolis, six miles to the north. The meaning of Laodicea is “rule of the people” or “judgment of the people,” and is now a deserted place, called by the Turkish people as Eski-hisser, or “old castle.”
Laodicea served as the administrative and commercial center of the three, and thus was the richest. Laodicea was known throughout the Roman world of its time for three main things:
Its banks, which even Cicero recommended for exchanging money; its linen and wool industry, which produced cloth, and carpets, especially from the glossy black wool of sheep reared in the area; its medical school and widely famed medicines, notable among which was an eye-ointment.
Laodicea was a proud city due to its wealth, and when a devastating earthquake struck in A.D. 60, the leaders rejected Rome’s financial aid! Also, the city was located on a plateau, and thus appeared impregnable to outside forces, yet, its source of water came through aqueducts dug that enemies could block or use as a channel into the city.
It is necessary to point out why the subject of lukewarmness is associated with this church. The city tapped water from Hierapolis. In one direction, there was the hot mineral springs useful for medicinal baths, and in another direction was icy cold water. By the time this mixture flowed across the plateau of Laodicea, the water would have become tepid, nauseating and polluted, literally losing its freshness. Naturally, people, in most cases spew such water out as soon as the tongue tastes it.
The Description of the Lord
“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation” (v.14b). First, the Lord describes Himself here as “the Amen, a transliteration of the Hebrew word for “truth,” or “affirmation.” It is a word used to declare the truthfulness of a statement or prayer. Jesus Christ is thus the guarantee of the truth, that is, He confirms all that God the Father says or commands. Paul confirms that, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20). Secondly, He describes Himself as the true and faithful witness, that is, He is completely trustworthy and honest. In Him there is no falsehood whatsoever.
Thirdly, the Lord is the ruler of God’s creation. The KJV’s rendition of the description, “the beginning of the creation of God” may be misconstrued to mean that Christ was a created being, and that will simply be heresy. Such a position denies the deity of Christ. The New Testament in Basic English renders it, “the head of God’s new order,” while The New Testament in the Language of Today translates it as “The Origin of God’s creation.” Even the Colossian passage that points to Christ as “the firstborn over all creation” points to Him as the supreme or preexistent One with the Father by whom everything was created (cf. Col 1:15-17). The Lord is thus the ruler or the source (Greek, archē) of God’s creation, the “firstborn” (Greek, prōtotokos), the ruler—supreme person in all of God’s creation.
The Concern of the Lord
“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (3:15-17).
The Lord wasted no time to express His concern, and the city’s lukewarm water became the metaphor used to get the message across. Since its water was fouled and tepid before arriving into the city, and becoming undrinkable for people, so the Laodicean church made the Lord sick. The church was just floating, and spiritually tepid in her environment. The assembly was not hot—meaning it was not spiritually fervent and alive for the Lord. Neither was it cold, since it was not refreshing, just simply lukewarm—uninteresting and lackadaisical in its commitment to the Lord! This church was simply complacent, lethargic and indifferent.
Laodicea church represents modern churches that are half-committed to the Lord in the areas of witnessing, missions and evangelism, Bible study and prayer, pure and holy living, generous giving and Christian deeds. The end-result of such spiritual lethargy is the loss of their Christian impact in the society. This is salt that has lost its saltiness (cf. Matt 5: 13). The Lord would also have to discard her—spit you out of my mouth—this church would no longer be part of refreshing and nourishing vessels within the body of Christ; nor would she experience spiritual nourishment from the Lord. Unfortunately, this is the picture of many of the contemporary churches as John R. W. Stott poignantly points out:
Perhaps none of the seven letters is more appropriate to the twentieth century church than this. It describes vividly the respectable, sentimental, nominal, skin-deep religiosity which is so widespread among us today. Our Christianity is flabby and anaemic. We appear to have taken a lukewarm bath of religion.
Again, this church equated wealth and prosperity with sound spirituality, that is, she confused material prosperity with spiritual blessings—“’I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (v. 17). The wealth of Laodicea where the church was located gave members false sense of spirituality, and thus she became self-conceited, spiritually-arrogant and boastful. The stark reality was her spiritual bankruptcy—she was spiritually “empty” in the eyes of the Lord. Laodicean church depended on her ability and resources rather than in the Lord and spiritual disciplines He provides.
The church today must pay attention and meditate on God’s Word on spiritual arrogance:
“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor.10:12, KJV). “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal 6:3, NIV). See also Prov. 3:7; 20:6; 26:12; 30:12; Isa. 5:21.
The Counsel of the Lord
Verses 18-20 contain strong words for the members of the church and three main things were asked of her. First, she was counseled to “buy from me gold refined in the fire, so [she] can become rich.” The invitation to buy is not a conventional transaction where material wealth is used, but it is an echo of Isaiah 55:1-2 that says,
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, but and eat! Come, but wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Faith in the Lord, that is, true salvation is “more precious than gold” (cf. 1 Pet 1:7), and it is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.
Secondly, Laodicean church was advised to buy “white clothes to wear, so [she] can cover [her] shameful nakedness.” While the city boasted of a large manufacturing textile trade, their products could not satisfy the Lord whose requirement is pure heavenly garment—righteousness of Christ. The Parable
of the Wedding Garment (cf. Matt 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24) is a relevant commentary on this free gift of God through Christ.
Thirdly, the church was to buy “salve to put on [her] eyes, so [she] can see.” The church needed to have their spiritual eyes opened to see how wretched they were. Unlike the limited eye ointment which the city manufactured, the Lord provides the unlimited ability, the spiritual insight through the Holy Spirit to remove spiritual blindness. It is only the ointment of the Lord which can help the members to see clearly the true riches to acquire (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9-10).
Verse 19 indicates that the spiritual problems of the lukewarm believers in Laodicea were not totally hopeless or unredeemable as the Lord expressed His love for them—those whom I love, I reprove and discipline. The word used for love is philo, meaning a dear, tender fatherly love. Thus, just like a caring and responsible father, God expresses love for the sinners in order to bring them to repentance. God’s discipline is part of showing love to those who have misbehaved by a loving Father, and the purpose of reproving and disciplining is to prevent others from behaving similarly, and to avoid unpleasant judgment.
The seriousness of the sin of lukewarmness could lead to instant judgment, but the Lord gives second chance, and He counseled the Laodicean church to “be earnest and repent.” The word earnest or zealous means to boil and burn with zeal, thus they must not delay or dilly-dally about turning a new leave—they must renounce their half-hearted commitment to the Lord, turn from their sin of lukewarmness that could easily lead them to God’s wrath. This is what all backslidden churches and members need to do before it is too late.
The Lord crowns His plea with another gracious invitation: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (v. 20). The Lord as the unseen, honored Guest through the power of the Holy Spirit stands at the entrance or the door of the church and of hearts closed to Him—knocking, a symbol of seeking, and pleading through His voice. This is reminiscent of the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son in Luke 15. The essence of the Lord’s plea is His interest to fellowship, to be an intimate companion, and a Source of nourishment and empowerment—“I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” What a blessing to have the Lord resident in our churches and in our hearts!
The Promise of the Lord
“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (vv. 21-22). The letter ends with this wonderful promise, again showing the grace of the compassionate Lord to the lukewarm church. The overcomers are the believers, hence if Laodicean church members repent and become zealous to do His will, they will experience the grace, the right, the opportunity to share in His Kingdom. His victory came through His suffering on the cross, and therefore He was given a name that is above every name (cf. Phil 2:9)!
The message to the apostate church is a reminder to other churches to learn from what the Spirit said to her. We must not be presumptuous about our standing in the Lord. We must constantly be alert in our spiritual commitment to the Lord.