Last week we learnt from the first four letters to the churches in Revelation chapter 2. Jesus commands us to (1) Love one another greatly. (2) Be steadfast in persecution and suffering. (3) Hold firmly to the truth. (4) Live a life of absolute moral purity. (5) Be alert to the possibility of false teachers.
Today we will continue on the last three letters of Christ to the seven churches in chapter 3.
An English writer in the 18th Century, Dorothy Sayers once wrote: “Like the father of the prodigal son, God can see repentance coming a long way off and is there to meet it. The repentance is the reconciliation.” Our God is watching us the churches, and he is always looking for the day when we reconcile with Him through Christ. As we read these letters with an open heart by the Holy Spirit, we can examine ourselves and learn from the criticisms that Christ has told us to repent. So let us begin with the book and see what Jesus has to speak to us today.
1) Message to Sardis: Return to Spiritual Life
To the Sardis church, Jesus declared that he holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. In Revelation 1:20, we have learnt that the seven stars represent the angels of the seven churches or the spiritual leader of the churches. And the seven spirits are the Holy Spirit of God. We learnt from Isaiah 11:2 that the Spirits of the LORD are: (1) Spirit of the LORD, (2) Spirit of wisdom, (3) Spirit of understanding, (4) Spirit of counsel, (5) Spirit of power, (6) Spirit of knowledge, (7) Spirit of the fear of the Lord.
And what does Jesus says to the church? First, Jesus says “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1b)
The Sardis church is spiritually dead, and its reputation is fake. The church is filled with nominal Christians. Jesus did not say any commendation about this church because there is nothing good worthy of praise. Their deeds are dead, only upholding the name. Jesus tells the church to ‘wake up’, and warns her that he’s coming to judge her will be unexpected; it seems the church itself is not aware of its real spiritual state. All regard the Sardis church as a flourishing, active, successful church—all except Christ. Its works do not, in fact, measure up to the standard that Jesus expects; not one of them has been ‘completed’ Jesus is saying “Wake up!” You are about to die without knowing it. Strengthen your spiritual life. Jesus says the deeds of the Sardis church is “unfinished in the sight of my God”. They were not being persecuted, but they had offended God by just doing the thing with the outward appearances. Everything looks great outwardly in the church’s reputation, but it is a false assumption. People in the church are satisfied with themselves and their past achievements. The past successes soothe the church members into satisfaction with the way things are. This church refuses to make necessary changes to failed attitudes and programs, and they lost the momentum to finish their work called by Christ in the beginning, being “unfinished” in God’s eye. Like an athlete running in the marathon, he was ahead of others in the beginning, but a few metres away to the end, he starts to slow down and stop in the middle. Will the athlete complete the course? Of course not. This is the satisfaction of the church who stopped its gospel work in the middle before Jesus return. This situation happens in many churches, especially in old churches for over 30 years old. People are satisfied with the things that were, and the new generation didn’t continue its gospel work of evangelism.
Look at what Jesus says to them in verse 3, “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, 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.”
Jesus threatens to judge the lifeless church of Sardis by coming against them like a thief at an unexpected time. The church of Sardis will experience God’s judgment if it does not change.
But is it possible for a dead, orthodox and biblical church to change? The answer is yes because a few people in the church had remained faithful to the Lord. Jesus says they have not soiled their clothes, means the true Christians in the church had kept themselves pure. They have avoided the corruption in the church. No stain of immorality and idolatry soiled their lives. This minority group in the church had kept a watchful eye for anything and anyone that might cause them to stumble and fall into sin. So Jesus says in verse 4, “They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” Dressed in white means pure and righteous. Jesus commends them as worthy of special praise. They will appear in white, because their righteousness was based on Christ’s death for them, washed clean by the blood of the lamb, which resulted in their righteous living.
Do you live a life of righteousness that is worthy to Christ’s calling? Are you willing to walk with Jesus in your daily life? Jesus is inviting us to reject the corruption in this world and walk with him day after day.
Jesus promised in verse 5, “The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.” If we can take this message home and aim to live a holy life worthy as Christ’s followers, you are promised to be dressed in white as well. Jesus also promised that you would never be blot out from the book of life. And what does it mean? God has a book of life, like a registry of the righteous in Heaven, and everyone whose name is written on it, he will live with God forever.
Jesus’ saying recalled Psalm 69:27-28, which says, “Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. 28 May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.” In the judgment day, whoever’s name is blotted out of the book of life will lose their share of eternal life. But how do we get our names acknowledged by Jesus before his Father and his angels?
Look at what Jesus taught us in the Gospel of Matthew 10:32, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” If we want Jesus to keep our names in the Book of Life and acknowledge us before God the Father, we need to acknowledge Jesus Christ before other people in our life. That means telling people about Jesus and his salvation – that is evangelism. To be an active church that is not dead. We have to tell people about Jesus. If you have been coming to church for months and years and still haven’t learnt how to tell people about Jesus, come and talk to me. I can help you doing the Alpha Course or Christianity Explored, and spread the word out so that your family and friends and neighbours can be saved. Be a faithful witness of Christ, and get our heavenly rewards of righteousness through his sacrifice and offering of salvation. This is Christ’s calling to our church. Whoever is spiritual asleep like the Sardis church, we must repent and return to our earlier spiritual liveliness as a gospel-focused church who proclaim Jesus Christ in the world.
2) Message to Philadelphia: Be Sure of the Kingdom
Then in the letter to the church of Philadelphia, which means “brotherly love” in Greek, Jesus describes himself as the one “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.”
In the Bible, holiness is a characteristic of God, and he is the only truth. Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As the Holy One of Israel, Jesus is the key and the gate to God and Eternal Life. We are only acceptable to have a real fellowship with God because Jesus has paid the price for our sins. That he holds the key of David because, in the Old Testament prophecy, this Messiah who will bring us to God’s kingdom in Heaven is in the household of King David.
The Key of David is referring to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Eliakim, who became the royal guardian of ancient Jerusalem, “I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” (Isaiah 22:22) Jesus is in charge of the gate of Heavens. Only Jesus has the key, that is the authority from God the Father to admin people into his heavenly city. Without Jesus, no one can enter Heaven.
Jesus said to the church in verse 8, “I 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.” Notice that Christ makes this decision on the basis of deeds: whether you have kept Jesus’ word and have not denied His name. So according to the biblical faith, good works are the evidence of true repentance. Like Apostle John wrote in his letter, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” (1 John 3:9) Our deeds mark out a repentant and faithful witness to Christ. In this context, the assurance of eternal life is never justified by those who merely claim God’s salvation when their deeds are opposed to God’s reign. Jesus judges us from Heaven. He looks at what we do and what we say and how we treat each other. He judges us by seeing how we share the Gospel and witness Him in front of outsiders. And those who are faithful to Jesus Christ in front of people, Jesus has given them an open door to God’s holy city, and no one can shut their entrance to Heaven.
Jesus also says in verse 9, “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 down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”
The congregation of Philadelphia was small, and the church members had little strength to oppose the forces of evil. Yet they had kept Jesus’ word and not denied His name, they have also kept Jesus’ command to endure patiently. So Jesus promised them that the synagogue of Satan, that is the Jews who refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Although they claimed to be God’s people, they are not. Their claim was based on biology with Abraham as their forefather, rather than having the faith that Abraham had shown in the Scripture. Because they persecuted the church, Jesus says they are not the true people of God but liars and synagogue of Satan. And Jesus will make these hostile Jews submit to the small church of Philadelphia. And Jesus will also keep the church from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. This hour of trial is referring to the Great Tribulation that is initiated by God. It will be a terrible time to live for those who are on earth, but the Philadelphians will be kept from the trial. Jesus promises to protect these believers from the terrible experience, like when God sent the plagues to Egypt in Exodus, God has preserved the Israelites from the plagues.
After that, Jesus offered the church a command; he says in verse 11, “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them 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 them my new name.” Jesus is coming soon. He promised his disciples that he would return. Our Lord Jesus will come back soon. And as the church of Christ, we need to hold on to the Gospel of Christ that we believe, so that no one will lose the heavenly reward. Are you ready for Jesus’ return? We have been waiting for Christ to come back. And Jesus has promised that he will do so. But are you ready? Jesus is telling us to hold on to his teachings and his salvation. Don’t drift away from Christ. Don’t lose your belief in Christ because he is coming back to take you up to Heaven with him.
Jesus has a new temple in his eternal city of New Jerusalem. Three times in the Book of Revelation, Jesus has prophesied that this heavenly city of Jerusalem will come down out of Heaven from God. And the spiritual temple is an essential part of the holy city. In the symbolic meaning, the presence of the temple with its pillars represents the permanence and stability of those who overcome in eternity. This blessing is given to you all today from our Lord Jesus.
3) Message to Laodicea: Repent of Self-Sufficiency
In the final letter is written to the church in Laodicea, Jesus describes himself as “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” (Revelation 3:14b)
In the Old Testament, God is the God of the Amen – The God of truth. He is completely trustworthy and truthful. He is also the true witness of his Father because Jesus is the representative of God on earth. As Apostle John proclaimed in John 3:32-33, “He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.” Also, God who created the world with the Word of God, his Son. So Jesus, who is God’s Word incarnate, is also the ruler of His Creation.
And Jesus said to the church of Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 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. 18 I 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.” (Revelation 3:15-18)
In the letter to Laodicea, “hot” means spiritual fervour and “cold” means outright resentment to the things of God—that the Lord prefers outright rejection than spiritual “lukewarmness”, indifference. Just like the water in Laodicea, historically, Laodicea was near two other Roman cities. Hierapolis had hot medicinal waters; Colossae had cold, pure, refreshing water. Both were wonderful. What was terrible was the useless water of Laodicea. We drink hot tea or ice tea, but tea at room temperature is disgusting. Jesus says “I am about to spit you out of my mouth. The issue of the church of Laodicea is that the people are self-sufficient by themselves. They don’t rely on God in anything at all. Jesus will judge and reject them for their self-righteousness or self-sufficiency.
Jesus rebuke this church for three things: First, the church said, “I am rich”. That is, the church supposed it had such adequate material was like the city, proud of its banks and material resources that it could do without the Lord’s spiritual help. The congregation boasts that “I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing. This is opposite to the church in Smyrna. But God sees them as spiritual poor.
Secondly, the church thought it was clothed with plenty of righteous character. From the historical records, Laodicea was renowned in the ancient Roman world for its extensive textile industry, particularly of black wood fabric. But instead, the Lord understood that the church is spiritual wretched, pitiful, and naked. The material wealth blinds the congregation, and they cannot see that they are pitiful and naked without white robes of righteousness.
And thirdly, the church supposed itself to have spiritual insight. Instead, it is spiritually blind. They failed to realize their true spiritual condition and are deceived by themselves. Because they had depended on themselves, they were impoverished, unclothed, and sightless. Jesus rejects a self-righteous church.
So he prompts this congregation to buy from Him gold refined in the fire. Real gold symbolizes righteous character here that is proven genuine through the testing of fire of persecution. And buy white clothes of righteousness from Christ to cover their shameful nakedness, which is lack of righteousness because only Jesus’ righteousness can truly cover our sins before God. The Lord asks the congregation to put salve medicine on their eyes to cure their spiritual blindness. The Laodicean church claimed that it had a spiritual insight. But what the church really need to recognize its blindness and ask for Jesus’ wisdom and insight.
The expectation of rebuke and discipline balances Jesus’ declaration of love in the letter. Like Proverbs 3:12 says, “The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”
In summary, Jesus challenges us to become a congregation with a true spiritual life. He promises the congregation in Philadelphia that the open door to Heaven is assured. Christians are warned to reject their self-sufficiency.
This church must repent of its self-sufficiency and be earnest in attitude. Jesus does not only want to provide gold, clothing, and sight to this congregation; he also wants them to enjoy his person, his fellowship. He says, “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 that person, and they with me. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.”(Revelation 3:20)
If you think that you too are being self-reliant and forget to depend on God, Jesus is knocking the door and waiting for you. He wants the entire congregation to open the door to have fellowship with him. To the overcomers, Jesus will give you the right to sit with him on his throne of exaltation. Just like the way he sat down with his Father on his throne. You will receive this honour, to rule and reign with Christ if you obey Jesus’ voice.
You know it is Jesus’ voice because he always says “He who has an ear, let him hear”. (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43) Jesus says this to remind us to pay attention to his words. If we neglect what Jesus said, we will peril in judgement.
So what do we need to do in the application?
- Keep Christ’s word. Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel. Listen and do his commands.
- Stay true to his name. Do not deny Jesus’ name in front of the opposition.
- Endure persecution patiently.
- Come back into fellowship with Christ if your faith is nominal or self-sufficient.
Don’t get your name to blot out from the book of life, or letting Jesus vomits you out. Let us do what Jesus has commanded us and receive his blessings and fellowship in eternity. And this concludes the seven letters to the churches in Revelation.
Let us pray and give thanks to God.
Lord, thank you that all those you love you rebuke and discipline. Thank you that you stand and knock, desiring full fellowship with your people even when we become lukewarm. By your grace, I will live the rest of my life in full commitment to you. Amen.
1. Have you encountered a Sardis-like nominal church? How did you react? How would you advise the pastor and spiritual leaders of the church?
2. The “open door” placed before the Philadelphian church has been applied in a variety of ways to the “doors” that a congregation may walk through. List some open doors that your local church should be aware of and walk through.
3. To what extent do you agree with the statements made in the opening of this chapter? The description of Christ standing on the outside of the Loadicean church knocking for permission to enter should make us stop and think. This is not comforting but alarming.
4. If Revelation 3:20 is addressed to churches rather than to people who do not know Christ as Saviour, then discuss the issue of whether it is valid to quote the verse in evangelistic preaching and presentations.