9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.[i]
The idea of Christianity is commonplace in our day even if the core propositions of the biblical gospel are not. But at the turn of the 1st century A.D. when the apostle John wrote this letter, Christianity and Christian worship were radically counter-cultural. Christian worship was exclusive. Whatever gods one might have worshipped prior to trusting into Messiah Jesus had to be rejected. This was a very UN-Roman idea. In Roman culture, religion was a public duty because the Roman gods kept the empire flourishing. Christians were considered socially rude, reckless, callous, unpatriotic, “haters of humanity.”[ii]
Christian gatherings centered around a book. Christians read it aloud, studied it, expounded it, memorized it, and even sang it. This was strange to a culture whose worship involved public pageantry. Books were not a part of Roman religious practice. Christians had no altars for animal sacrifices, no priests or priestesses with ornate clothes, no statues, and no temples. To the city and regional officials of Roman Asia in John’s day, it was unpatriotic NOT to wipe out this anti-Roman movement.
This patriotic wave of Christian persecution that swept across Roman Asia sending the apostle John into exile on Patmos prompts the Lord Jesus’ message to his struggling congregations there.
Revelation is a letter for all God’s people in all ages struggling in an oppressive world fighting sin, the flesh, and the devil. But it has seven postscripts (prophecies) included for seven struggling congregations located along a horseshoe-shaped road running through the province who are about to undergo serious oppression: “to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”[iii]
Seven churches are chosen because it represents the number of fullness. There are seven seals opened, seven trumpets are sounded, seven bowls of plagues are poured out, seven benedictions are given. Part of the significance of all these “sevens” is that the message and visions of the letter are for ALL God’s people everywhere in all the last days between Christ’s first and final coming. It speaks to the situation of every believer in every generation because it’s for all believers living in every age in this present world.
Revelation contains a description we have of Jesus’ appearance (1:12-16). It is not literal like a photograph, but rather stylistic like a painting. Jesus is not so much revealing what he looks like, but what he IS like. John paints Jesus using the colors of the Old Testament.[iv] He writes, “I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.”[v] Lampstands are a recurring image in both the history (Ex. 25:31, 37; 1 Ki. 7:49) and in the Prophets (Zech. 4:2). But in Revelation, the lampstands represent the seven churches (the full number) Jesus will address (1:20). They represent the light of the gospel given to the congregations.
Christ is standing in the middle of the complete number of his congregations. Jesus appeared and, by this vision, showed himself to be completely in charge. He is, John says, one like the Son of Man – a reference to Dan. 7:13-14 where Messiah is shown to be the ruler of the universe. “The Son of Man is divine, dwells in eternity, possesses ultimate authority, and is the sovereign of an indestructible kingdom. This picture expresses majesty, power, and authority that no human being can equal… Here, then, is the majestic Lord walking among the churches to reprove and encourage, and to command and commend them.”[vi]
His eyes penetrate everything like fire (Dan. 10:6) as he searches out minds and hearts (Rev. 2:23). His feet are solid and immovable by any force other than himself; his voice roars with strength, persistence, and power of the ocean waves crashing on the rocks of Patmos (Dan. 10:6). The colors of John’s pallet show One who is a prophet, a priest, and a king who stands firmly, powerfully, and immovably among his people.
John writes in verse 16: “In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” [vii] These stars, Jesus says in 1:20, are the angels of the seven churches, the messengers Christ has appointed to serve him
in the seven churches (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14).[viii] His words are like the sharpest instrument in the arsenal of Roman weaponry, piercing soul and spirit, joint and marrow (Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17). His face shines with the unbearable radiance of holy glory (Judges 5:31).
He commands John in verse 19, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”[ix] In the Old Covenant, when a prophet was commanded to write down a prophecy it was mostly to convey the coming judgment of God. That’s about to take place here as the one like the Son of Man stands among his churches with his appointed ministers in his hand. He’s is coming to assess and refine and judge the church. God’s judgment begins with his people before it falls upon the condemned world.[x]
These seven prophecies are organized in an X-like pattern (chiasm, after the Greek letter “Chi”). The first and last prophecies are linked; the second and the next-to-last are linked, etc. The first church (Ephesus) and the last church (Laodicea) have both lost their first love (2:4; 3:16). The second and sixth prophecies address churches for whom Jesus has no criticism. A chiasm doesn’t merely link pairs but also focuses attention toward the center of the literary unit. That means there is a concentration of dangers in prophecies three through five. False teaching leads to immorality which leads to death (3:1).[xi] The more benefits of Christ a congregation pursues without clinging to Christ himself, the greater the danger and damage. That is the point of the chiasm of chapters two and three.
Jesus’ first prophecy is addressed to the congregation at Ephesus. Paul planted the Ephesian congregation. He spent three years preaching and teaching there (Acts 19, 20:31). The great preacher Apollos preached there. Timothy pastored there. The apostle John has been preaching there for about 30 years. The congregation is theologically well-educated. 2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.’” [xii] They had labored hard (toil) to plant churches, to preserve sound apostolic doctrine, and to root out man-centered teaching. Twice in verses 2 and 3 Jesus says they have persevered patiently, “bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”[xiii] They refused to conform to the vile culture of their city, year in and year out. The Lord Jesus Christ sees their labors in doctrine and practice. He knows their good works.
But, because Christ is present in the Ephesian congregation he also sees something very dangerous going on along with the good things. “4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.”[xiv] Lack of love for one another in the church and lack of love for neighbors outside the church is a symptom of a deeper problem. The deeper issue for Ephesus and the other six churches addressed (and for all congregations in these last days) is one thing: they are pursuing various individual benefits of Christ without pursuing Christ himself. They are living out a mostly Christ-less Christianity where the gospel has been assumed.
Doctrinal purity and outward conformity to God’s law are benefits of our faith-union with Christ, but they are NOT union with Christ. Preserving theology and opposing paganism caused Ephesus to forget Christ’s sovereign glory.[xv] Remember how Christ began his prophetic message to John in 1:8? “8 I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” [xvi] Jesus is the starting point of everything and the ending point of everything. Sound doctrine is a benefit of union with Christ but it is not Christ. Refusal to compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil is a benefit of union with Christ but it is not Christ.
When we lose our sense of the great weight of our sins – not just outward acts, but our inward cravings of self-worship – we lose the sense of our desperate, continuous need for the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We lose the ongoing repentance Christ demands from his people. The Ephesian congregation lost the sense of their desperate need for Christ. So, the light of their witness in a lost and dying world flickered dimly under the bushel of seeking Jesus’ benefits without seeking Jesus himself.
The next stop on the horseshoe-shaped road is Smyrna. It was a wealthy port city of about 200,000 people and lay roughly 35 miles north up the coast from Ephesus on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. On top of Mt. Pagos stood a temple known from ancient times as the “crown of Smyrna.” Smyrnaen coins featured the Roman Goddess Fortune (Fortuna) wearing a victory wreath on her head; the city was famous for its athletic games.[xvii] The city associated itself with crowns of victory: it had wealth, status, hosted athletic competitions, and boasted of its fierce loyalty to Rome’s emperor. As far as they were concerned, the Smyrnaens were winners in every possible way.
As winners, they would not tolerate this strange group of losers who refused to honor gods and country, who would not even acknowledge Emperor Domitian as the god he surely was. The only way to deal with such treason was to arrest them and put them to death. Each church faces the same problems as the others to which Christ alone is the only solution. Therefore, each prophecy begins with an aspect of Christ’s person and work.
This prophecy begins: “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last [Isa. 44:6], who died and came to life.” [xviii] Jesus is before the beginning (Jn. 1:1) and shall be at the end of these Last Days. He knows the beginning from the end; he knows all things because he has decreed all things, governing absolutely everything in the universe – including the persecution (and martyrdom) of his people. He swallowed up death and lives forevermore. Every description of himself Christ gives to these seven churches is a statement of his absolute sufficiency for their situations.
To a suffering congregation some of whom are about to experience imprisonments and death, Jesus speaks as the Master of all circumstances who is himself the Great Martyr, the witness unto death who rose again and ascended into glory. But this prophecy is not a condolence letter.[xix] We might send sympathy cards to grieving friends saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sending you good thoughts and lots of positive energy.” But Jesus doesn’t dictate a message of condolence. Jesus counts his people worthy to suffer for his name’s sake.
And in the early church, his people rejoiced to suffer in a way the modern Western church would be completely disillusioned to experience; we think “victory” is achieving our economic and political and social goals – getting our way in the kingdom of me. We think it horrifying that Christians in some distant country have been counted worthy by Jesus to suffer for his name’s sake. We don’t understand what true victory looks like in God’s right-side-up Kingdom. We look on in horror at what we see as a “loss” while Jesus places the victory wreath upon their heads. Jesus followers “win” in His Kingdom by losing in our own kingdoms of self.
One final note on the prophecy to Smyrna: It contains the first reference to Jesus’ assessment of the ethnic Jews who reject Messiah. This will come up again next week as we study the prophecy to Philadelphia. One scholar notes, “the Jews’ attack against the Smyrnean [sic.] church was ironic in that it demonstrated that the Jews were not only ‘false Jews’ but also ‘a synagogue of Satan,’ and that the church, by implication, was the ‘true Israel.’”[xx]
Jesus calls the city of Pergamum the city where Satan’s throne is. Throughout the letter of Revelation, Satan is shown to be a defeated but-still-powerful enemy desperately trying to maintain some foothold against the inevitably-advancing Kingdom of Christ. Sometimes, he uses the beast of government oppression and coercion to persecute the Church with the sword. At other times he uses the harlot of false doctrine to seduce God’s earthly people.
In Pergamum, there are some people teaching others to seek the benefits of peace and security. If they will just attend a pagan feast every now and then (like the Jews did), they could go along to get along. “You don’t have to actually believe Caesar is Lord. We all know Jesus is Lord. And if Jesus is in your heart, who cares what your body does? It’s just food. Go to a temple feast every now and then. You’ll be safe. You do business and make a living. You’ll be a lot happier. You get to party. What’s the harm?”
The Nicolaitans were offering the benefits of Christ without Christ himself. They offered fellowship, a daily provision of income in the marketplace, and peace. But they didn’t offer the whole Christ, who bids us take up our cross and come die to ourselves and live to him. The false prophet Balaam was killed by the sword. Jesus promises to bring his sword of justice against those Nicolaitans who will not repent of their Balaam-like teachings – sincere as they might be (2:16). The church of Pergamum is itself seeking peace apart from Christ because it refuses to discipline the false teachers. You can hold fast to Christ, but you cannot do that and hold to the teachings of the Nicolaitans. Why should Pergamum elders stir up conflict in their own congregation? Because Jesus commands it and offers his lasting benefits in return.
To those who overcome, Jesus promises eternal fellowship: himself as the manna-bread of life (daily provision) and a white stone of intimate eternal relationship. The throne of Satan promises peace now, provision now, victory now. But the sword will come to those who bow before that throne. The throne of God offers the eternal provision of Christ.
Thyatira, our next stop, was a manufacturing town, was situated “over the curve” of the horseshoe-shaped road the letter of Revelation is traveling. What few ruins of the city remaining today contain inscriptions to numerous pagan trade guilds that oversaw all aspects of business life in the city. The congregation was no larger than ours, yet Jesus treats it with equal concern as his much larger and wealthier churches because their temptation is equally grave. Some members of the congregation are being seduced by a false prophetess Jesus calls that woman Jezebel to seek jobs, peaceful coexistence, and security by participating in pagan worship in addition to worshipping Jesus. This is the teaching of the Nicolaitans posing as prophecy from God.
This false prophetess was actively prophesying her deep things of God – the message that pretending to worship the Roman demon-gods was permissible, so Christians could do business and avoid conflict with their city. Whenever God’s people have worshipped idols in addition to God he has called this false worship prostitution and fornication. That didn’t necessarily mean they were committing physical sexual acts. Religious infidelity under the figure of harlotry is common imagery in the OT.
The church at Ephesus hated the works of the Nicolaitans (2:6); the church at Pergamum allowed the Nicolaitans to live among them (2:15); the church at Thyatira tolerated the active promotion of this same false teaching within their congregation.[xxi] Jesus promises he will kill this spiritual prostitute on her bed (catch the irony?) and kill all those who fail to repent of following her. This prophecy began with tenderness, broke out into fury, and concludes with the tender command of the Shepherd to his sheep. “24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, …I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come.”[xxii] Isn’t it interesting that the same savior who calls his people to take up their crosses and follow him, to come die with him (Matt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34), also says: “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 18:20).
The only burden Jesus lays on his people is to hold fast what you have. What do they have? They have faith-union with Messiah Jesus. By trusting into his perfect works and the sacrificial, blood-shedding death of the resurrected and gloriously-ascended Jesus, those believers in Thyatira, and you, and I have ALL the benefits of Christ.
The last stop before we move on to Philadelphia next week is the congregation of Sardis. Sardis was a wealthy city with a secure mountain fortress. Twice the city grew overconfident in their power and twice their fortress was breached, and the city conquered as raiding armies snuck into the fortress like thieves in the night. Sardis was also famous for its cemetery (necropolis) known as “the city of a thousand hills” for the memorials to the dead marking its skyline.[xxiii] The Lord Jesus may well be referencing this in 3:1 when he says to Sardis, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”[xxiv]
In the upside-down way of Christ’s Kingdom, the congregation appeared to be hip, happening, growing, exciting place to be. But Jesus pronounces it dead, or mostly dead. There are, Jesus says, in verse 4, “4 … still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”[xxv] But most of the church was sleeping on their watch like the ancient Sardis soldiers confident in their supposedly-impenetrable fortress. Jesus’ command (literally) “become one who is watchful” [“Wake up”] shows they have become lethargic about the radical demands of their faith in a pagan culture.[xxvi] They have traded Christ’s spiritual peace (Phil. 4:7) during spiritual battle (Ps. 23:5) for their own manufactured, external peace with their pagan culture. They’ve given up their fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil and gone to sleep.
God’s law no longer convicts them as it once did. The gospel no longer excites them as it once had. They have grown used to being in worship. They come; they sing; they listen politely; they visit superficially; they go home to their self-centered kingdoms of me. Their deadly disease is that they hear the Word of God spoken to them, but they regard it as nothing more than mere interesting words of a preacher. The sign they are near death is their loss of appetite for confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Maybe like in our congregation, these endangered folks came to worship only every four to six weeks because they were busy. They had stuff to do. Word and Sacrament got in the way of their busy lives most of the time. So, they live as those who are mostly dead.
Each of Jesus’ words to these seven churches (that are representative of every church throughout the last days between Christ’s first and second coming) is some specific application of the two great commandments to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Christ sets forth his law – which doesn’t change because God’s law is simply a description of God’s nature and character (and God does NOT change). He points out our failures to keep it. He demands our heartfelt repentance and points us to Christ’s perfect life and sacrificial death imputed to us.
And for those who overcome by seeing and repenting of their sins in this broken life and rejoicing over Christ’s having kept his law perfectly for us, Jesus promises the unshakable eternal blessing of his intimate presence as Immanuel (God with us). Heaven is ONLY heaven because Christ is there. It’s not “pie in the sky when you die;” it’s not that the new heavens and earth will be the place that satisfies all our needs and all our longings PLUS Jesus happens to be there. Jesus alone satisfies all our needs and longings by his intimate presence; THAT is what makes everything perfect and all things new.
Overcoming (victory, winning, conquering) to the pagan culture is being able to impose MY will on YOU. The victorious athlete is one who desires to beat opponents and does so; when she does, she wins or overcomes. The winning politician achieves his or her desire for the most votes and for getting the most support for proposed legislation. Winning in the kingdom of me is getting MY way how and when I want it. But in the upside-down Kingdom of Christ, believers overcome, conquer, by submitting OUR will to Christ’s will. We lose the battle for our wants, we give up and die to our kingdom of self, but we win the eternal victory in Christ who demonstrated ultimate submission to the Father by setting aside his own glory and submitting himself to death on a cross. Believers are overcomers through submitting to God’s sovereign will over absolutely EVERYTHING in our lives, even to the point of persecution to death.[xxvii]
It’s never too late to see your sins for what they are. It’s never too late to confess and repent. Christ’s invitation is always open to anyone given ears to hear. To you he cries.:
5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ [xxviii]
[ii] Tacitus, Annuls 15:44.
[iv] Ferguson, op. cit.
[vi]Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 95.
[viii] Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 97.
[x] Ferguson, op. cit.
[xi] Phillips, 110-111.
[xv] Phillips, 94.
[xvii] Pausanius, 6.14.3.
[xix] Ferguson, Smyrna: The Church that was Faithful, Rev. 2:8-11. https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=fpc-061707am
[xx] Id., 241.
[xxi] Kistemaker and Hendriksen, 137.
[xxiii] Id., 133.
[xxvi] Beale, 273.
[xxvii] On overcomers, see: Beale, 270–272.