In John’s days, the churches in Asia Minor were impacted by persecution and enticed toward lives of compromise that might soften the persecution. The temptations we face today might not be the same as what the early Christians met in the First Century, but the temptation to give in to the world’s pressure remains the same. When we face such temptation, Christ’s Revelation to us can put everything back into perspective. No matter how difficult our situation, Revelation announces that God is still in control and that he will conclude human history the way he has promised. Revelation is written to assure us that a time is coming when everything will be as it should be because Jesus Christ has authority over the world; he can assure us of its outcome. God’s Revelation is both a promise and demand because it gives us a new way of looking at this world. When we look at the world with God’s perspective, the Scripture encourages us that his justice will always prevail. It is also God’s demand because as we look for the day when God will right all wrongs, we must avoid being wrongdoers. To the persecuted Christians, the words of this book give them comforts, knowing that the suffering will not last; it is only temporal. But Jesus will give us eternal joy and peace at the end.
Revelation is not good news for everyone. It should terrify those who satisfied with the ways thing are in the world. It has great authority from the Lord, and it invites us to obey its teachings. It demands us to change and be ready. When Christ returns, he will judge the world and the church, including us. So let us have a look of what Jesus has to say to us and be ready for His Coming. Although the seven letters are addressed to a particular First Century Christian community in the Roman province of Asia and their concerns are related to specific situations of those churches, the concerns of these letters also apply to all churches today. So, let us begin the seven letters to the churches:
1) Christ asks us to be a congregation of great love (Ephesus)
The letter of Ephesians church starts with “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” (Revelation 2:1) The phrase “These are the words” are the Greek translation of the Hebrew term “Thus says” in the prophetic books in the Old Testament, like in Jeremiah 33:2, “Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it—the LORD is his name:” It is a standard biblical prophetic oracle formula used when a messenger speaks God’s Word. So the message is from Jesus, but it follows the same form as the prophetic oracles in the Old Testament. On Jesus’ hands holds seven stars on his right hand are angels of seven churches, and seven lampstands are the seven churches, as it was explained in last week’s passage in 1:20. “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” Jesus is walking among the lampstands, the churches, observing their deeds and their motives. Because he has been observing, he can compliment and criticise each of the churches. Imagine this, the Spirit of Christ is walking among us, and watching our deeds. He knows our hearts, thoughts and deeds; he is telling us what we should do. The Ephesian church was located in a significant political and economic centre of the Roman world. It is also the centre of the pagan worships of Roman imperial emperor cult and known for the worship of Greek goddess Artemis (Acts 19:23-40), with practice of magic (Acts 19:13-19).
Jesus first compliment to the church is three commendations in verse 2 for their deeds, hard work and perseverance. They have also expelled evildoers, the wicked from their church, and they had tested and rejected some false apostles. The Ephesians Church was being admired for the doctrinal purity with sound teaching of the Bible. Jesus said in verse 3 that they have “endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” These Christians had put up with hostility from pagan worshipers. They had been vigilant over the years in all the persecutions that came their way with perseverance.
It sounds like a good church, isn’t it? Strong doctrine and good bible teaching, no evildoers or false teachers, went through the hardship under persecution. We hope our church would be like this, but so far we are not yet under much persecution like other persecuted churches around the world.
But the Ephesians Church has its flaws. Jesus says in verse 4, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” The fatal flaw in their behaviour is their lack of love.
Is our church behaving similarly? We have sound doctrine and good bible teaching, no false teachers or evildoers in the church. Still, Have we lost our first love for Christ or no longer love fellow members in the church? Jesus gives us a great warning here, that if we don’t repent, he will remove the church from its place. Did we fall similarly and forget to love the people around us? How much time do we spend with one another and care for one another? Jesus is looking at us right now in the same way. So take note about what he says.
Jesus has found favour among the Ephesians Church – that they hate the practices of Nicolaitans who Jesus also hate (Revelation 2:6). Second Century biblical scholars have identified that these Nicolaitans were followers of Nicolas from Antioch in Acts 6:5, who have been associated with the heresy of antinomian Gnosticism later in life and departed from the church of Christ. But the church in Ephesus has to overcome more than the vigilance of theological accuracy. They also require the internal unity of love. The reward of this overcoming is eating “from the tree of life”.
The Spirit of Christ spoke with his catchphrase “Whoever has ears, let them hear”, Jesus always says that to get the hearers’ attention to his parables. (Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:8) So take note here for the reward, those who obey his voice and love in unity of Christ, Jesus will give them the right to eat from the tree of life, which was forbidden to eat in Genesis chapter 3. The fruit of the tree of life is the source of eternal life in Eden, in God’s paradise. If you eat from this tree, you will receive eternal life with God. It was forbidden to eat after the fall of Adam and Eve, but God will let you eat it and have eternal life with him, forever. Whoever eats from the tree of life will never die. This is the grace of God.
2) Christ calls us to be steadfast in suffering persecution (Smyrna)
To the church in Smyrna, Jesus asked John to write and begins with another oracle form from the Old Testament: “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” (Revelation 2:8b) The Lord is the First and the Last because God is there at the beginning of the Creation, and he is also at the end of the Creation. God is eternal as written in Isaiah 44:6, “This is what the LORD says– Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.” But he is also the one who died and came to life again, that is, Christ who died for our sins on the cross and raised from the dead. So it is referring to Jesus as the Second Person of Godhead. Jesus Christ is God, co-equal with his Father.
In this letter to the Smyrna church, Jesus has no criticism at all. All comments are compliments. Jesus says in verse 9, “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Jesus praises the church of Smyrna for their willing endurance of afflictions and poverty. These particular afflictions or sufferings in Greek is “thlipsis”, normally translated as tribulation, and this tribulation was caused by the Jews of Smyrna who were falsely accusing the Christians before Roman government officials and causing them to be arrested. In the Second Century, the Jewish accusers led to the persecution of Christians, including a disciple of Apostle John, Bishop Polycarp, which led to his execution. These type of conflicts in history explains who Jesus means by “the slander of those who are not real Jews but from the synagogue of Satan. God’s people will not do such things to persecute Jesus’ followers. So the Jewish accusers are not from God, but the from the devil.
Also, the Smyrnan Christians were very poor physical. Perhaps some of them had lost property due to the slanders of the Jews. But in God’s eye, they are spiritually rich. God does not measure the wealth of men on earth. Rather, he sees if we are rich in things of the Spirit.
As Jesus has spoken in Luke 12:21, “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” Jesus praises the believers in the Smyrna church that although they seem poor and persecuted in the world, spiritually they are rich toward God. They have found the treasure in heaven, and the reward waiting for them will be great.
Jesus says to them in verse 10, “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. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
We overcome the world not by returning hostility but by laying down our lives in the confidence that God will vindicate us. Suffering has a way of reminding us which things in life matter. Is it our physical wealth and personal success, or Jesus and spiritual fruit produced in our lives? Jesus wants us to depend radically on God, and thus purifying our obedience to God’s will.
Whoever is obedience to Christ, will expect to suffer because we have rejected the world. It is important to know God’s heart before we face suffering, so that we may understand our suffering in life of his love for us. Turn our eyes to Christ who shared our suffering in the cross, rather than interpreting his heart toward us on the basis of our suffering. Jesus warns us not to be afraid of what we are about to suffer. The test will not last compare to life in eternity with Christ.
When Jesus says “you will suffer persecution for ten days”, it is a symbolic number, not literally ten days. It symbolises a limited period. Some believers will receive persecution from the devil to the point of death. But Jesus tells his readers not to be afraid. This particular suffering comes because God has determined to test you. While God’s tests are not as pleasant as we experience them, they have a good goal. At the end of the persecution, the “crown of life” will be given to the victors when we endure it all. The crown of life again symbolises eternal life through Christ, the same as eating from the tree of life.
James wrote, “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)
Whoever stood the test are the victors of life. And they will not be hurt by the second death, which is eternal death in the lake of fire.
3) Christ charges us to hold firmly to the truth (Pergamum)
After that, Jesus moved onto the third letter to Pergamum. He described himself as “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” (Revelation 2:12b) This sword is the Sword of the Spirit in Ephesians 5:17, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Jesus is the Word of God incarnate in John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:1-2)
Pergamum was a famous Roman city that had long prospered. The image of the sword may remind the Christians about the highest penal authority, including capital punishment, as held by a Roman government—the sword of justice and hand of justice are regalia that symbolise it. Jesus is reminding Christians that he, not the Roman governor, holds the power of life and death. Our Lord Jesus will war against false teachers who corrupt his church. The Christians in Pergamum live in Satan’s throne because Pergamum was famous with worshipping the healing cult of Asclepius, which is associated with the Roman God Vediovis. The pagan worship’s chief symbol of their city’s deity was a serpent. Jesus is reminding us to be faithful while we are living in a pagan environment of prosperity. Jesus commended the church of their endurance under the persecution of the imperial cult in the city. He said, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives” (Revelation 2:13)
But external opposition is not the only problem for the Christian church. There are also internal problems. Jesus says in verse 14, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you. There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Balaam is not the real name of the false prophet. It is a code name signifying that this prophet is a false prophet, leading astray of God’s people. In Numbers 22 of the Old Testament, Balaam is characterised by his greed for money. He led Israel into sin in order to take them out of God’s favour (Numbers 31:16). This particular sins of Israel in connection with Balaam were sexual immorality and food offered to idols. It is the same sins and temptations of pagan society that brought judgment on Christians. Pergamum also has people holding the teaching of the Nicolaitans, as I explained last month in the Letter of 2 John. They think Jesus did not come to earth in flesh and blood, like what the Gnostics believe.
Today, we are also tempted by the temptations from the society. Living in the western world, we are less likely to eat food offered to idols. But our parents or grand-parents’ culture in Asia might still do it in Chinese religious festivals. However, sexual immorality is very common in this society. Temptations from the secular or pagan culture are still high to Christians in various form, in magazines, in internet porns, in television shows, on your phone, in social media. To against these temptations, we need the words of God. For Christians, sexual relationships are right only within the bonds of marriage. Jesus gave us a warning firmly against our assimilation in the pagan world. In verse 16, he said, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” Repentance is what Jesus tells us to do, and we must submit to God’s will. Otherwise, Jesus will come to us and bring judgment with his sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, that is why this sword comes from his mouth. When God speaks, it must come true. So when Jesus speaks of judgments upon those who follow Balaam-like false teachers or Nicolaitans who are not truly part of God’s people. Everything he says will become a reality, and it is a matter of life and death when Jesus judges the earth. The penalty will be severe for those who do not repent from their sins.
But to those who have won against these temptations and sins, standing firm and not compromise until the end, Jesus says he will give them some hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it. (Revelation 2:17) Manna is the divine food God gave to the Israelites in the desert during Exodus from Egypt. Every morning God dropped manna from the sky, and the Israelites would gather them to make bread. God’s manna has kept them alive in the desert for forty years. Manna is the food of life. The Jewish Christians understand that the ancient Israelites had hidden a pot of their divinely given bread in the ark of the covenant. In their tradition, they were told that this manna is miraculously preserved. It would be multiplied to feed God’s people when the Messiah came (Exodus 16:32-35), like what Jesus did to feed the thousands. It symbolises eternal life will be given to God’s people, while white stone symbolises our ticket to join Christ’s wedding feast. White colour in Revelation often symbolised the purity from sins, cleaned by the blood of Christ. We have received righteousness from God through our saviour, and we are vindicated in God’s judgment. Also, in the Roman world, people used stones as admission tickets for festivals. So white stone would mean our tickets to the celebration of heaven, eating the new manna of Jesus’ banquet. The stone has a new name engraved on it, “known only to the one who receives it”. As prophet Isaiah has spoken, “The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow.” (Isaiah 62:2)
4) Christ commands us to live lives of moral purity (Thyatira)
After his letter to Pergamum, in his fourth letter to the church in Thyatira, Jesus described himself with his true title, the Son of God, with eyes like blazing fire and feet like burnished bronze. As chapter 1 suggests, “eyes like blazing fire” means that nothing is hidden from His sight. As the all-seeing judge, Jesus judges righteously, without partiality. Also, His judgments are pure and right; while bronze played a significant part of both the Tent of Meeting and in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was considered holy, and it was dangerous to ignore God’s commands concerning those sacred places. The glowing brass feet of Jesus Christ reminds us of his holiness and that he is coming in judgment, and also connect us with the fact that he is the “meeting place,” where we meet God.
Jesus commended the church in verse 19, “I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.” Opposite to the church of Ephesus, the Christians in Thyatira had grown in faith through perseverance, and it was stronger in love in its deeds than when they first came to know Christ. However, all their growth in love and faith was overshadowed by the success of an evil teacher code-named “Jezebel”. Jezebel was an evil queen of Israel in 1 Kings of the Old Testament who passionately promoted the worship of pagan Canaanite deity Baal, and she had sponsored 850 false prophets in Israel. In verse 20 of Revelation 2, we learnt that this false teacher is a deceiver who calls herself a prophet and misleads God’s servants into sexual immorality and eating of food sacrificed to idols. Jezebel persuades Christians away from God and demands them to compromise with paganism. Jesus had given her time to repent from immorality, but she is unwilling.
Therefore, Jesus has announced his judgment upon Jezebel and her followers in verse 22, “So 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. 23 I 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.”
There are three groups will receive Jesus’ judgment; the first group are those who commit adultery with her. Some church members were struggling with her teachings and falling into some degree of moral compromise. They will face intense suffering unless they repent. That means Jesus is exercising discipline to restore these backsliders. Then the second group is called Jezebel’s children. They are her disciples who committed themselves to Jezebel’s doctrines. She had become their spiritual mother. Like Jezebel, they were unwilling to repent; Jesus will strike them dead. The third group is the rest of the believers in Thyatira; they are faithful to God and did not hold Jezebel’s teachings or the secret mystical teachings from the devil. Jesus is pleased with them that he will not impose any other burden; he told them to hold on to what they have until Jesus comes back. As the followers of Christ, we are urged to remain faithful to the simple truths and moral standards of the gospel. There is no need to look for some fanciful new teaching. All we need to do is just hold on to what we learnt from the Scripture and reject other false teachings until Christ returns.
Jesus promised in verse 26 to 28, “To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— 27 that one ‘will rule them with an iron sceptre and will dash them to pieces like pottery—just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give that one the morning star.” Those who overcome the false teachings until the end will reign with Christ. The imagery of “iron sceptre” comes from the messianic promise in Psalm 2:7-9, “I will proclaim the LORD’S decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your Father. 8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Jesus has the authority to rule over and shepherd the nations. Those who reject the false teachings will share Jesus’ authority. God will give them the morning star, that is, Jesus in their hearts.
As it is explained later in Revelation 22:16, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Christians who overcome will receive Jesus so that Christ is in them, and they are in Christ, united as one. Let those who have ears hear to what the Holy Spirit says to the churches. We will continue the letters to the next three churches next week. Let’s pray and give thanks to God for His divine Revelation.
1. How can a church today test those who claim to be apostles?
2. Explain “backsliding” in your own words.
3. Describe how remembering the past can either help or hurt someone’s spiritual life.
4. According to this chapter, what is a true Jew?
5. What are some practical ways that we can be overcomers today?
6. Which of these four churches would you most like to be a member of? Why? Which is your least favorite? Why?