In the last days of the Apostle John’s life, his faith in Jesus Christ led to his persecution. John had been living in Ephesus, but Rome exiled John to a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea called Patmos. I suppose the Romans thought to take a spiritual leader and move him out of the way so he wouldn’t spread any more dangerous ideas about this new disruptive Christianity, but exiling John to Patmos didn’t have the intended effect. John spent his time in worship and prayer, and it was here on Patmos that John was given a powerful revelation from Jesus about the spiritual health of the churches and a vision of the end-times to come.
The seven churches are
- Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) – the church that had forsaken its first love.
- Smyrna (Revelation 2:8-11) – the church that would suffer persecution.
- Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17) – the church that needed to repent.
- Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) – the church with a false prophetess.
- Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6) – the church that had fallen asleep.
- Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) – the church that had endured patiently.
- Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) – the church with the lukewarm faith.
All seven churches are located a Roman mail route in Asia Minor; the remains of each of these churches still exist today in what is now modern-day Turkey.
The seven churches described in Revelation 2-3 are seven churches that existed during the time John the apostle was writing Revelation. Though they were literal churches in that time, there is also spiritual significance for churches and believers today. So while the letters themselves are written to the churches, we can use the message to gain understanding of how both the churches and we as individuals relate to Jesus.
Each letter from Jesus to the churches follows a pattern. First, Jesus describes Himself, His Authority and His Power. Then He offers encouragement to the church, and a warning about their practices or their behavior. And to those who are victorious in Christ, a command and a promise.
- Jesus is…
- Warning / Promise
Let’s turn to Revelation 2 and begin.
II. To the Church in Ephesus, Revelation 2:1-7
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:
This is Jesus speaking to John, telling John to write down precisely the words of Jesus. Like much of what we’re going to study, there are several possible meanings in each verse. The Greek word is “angelos,” and usually means “spiritual messenger.” The “angel” of the church could refer to a guardian angel of each church, but some might wonder why Jesus would have John write a letter to an angel. A more earthly view is that the “angelos” was a human messenger that visited John, an elder or a pastor entrusted with the letter to share with the church. I think the rest of verse 2 clarifies it somewhat. Jesus describes himself as –
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.
This is why Revelation seems so difficult to me. I like my scripture to be more literal. When Jesus says, “forgive one another” or “love one another,” I get that. And it’s easy teach, too. “Forgive one another, love one another, walk among the lampstands.”
Sometimes the symbolism in Revelation is hard, but for today’s symbolism, I found a simple trick to understanding it. At the end of the previous chapter, Revelation 1… can somebody read out loud the very last verse of Revelation 1?
The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Ah, that makes it easy to understand. So this means Jesus walks among the churches and He holds the pastors of the churches in his hand. Got it.
Now Jesus tells the Church of Ephesus what He likes and what He doesn’t like –
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. 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. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Ephesus was a large seaport for its day, one of the largest cities with 400,000 people. In John’s day, Jesus is pleased with what He sees. The Ephesians work hard, they discern false teachers and wicked people, they are persecuted yet remain faithful. All very good things for the church and for you and me.
But there is a balance between truth and love, and both must be present in the will of the Lord. Ephesus triumphs in truth, but has forgotten that the purpose of the gospel, the good news, is love. Jesus is love, a sacrifice for we who do not deserve God’s gift of salvation but were given it anyway. If our Christian faith is marked by legalist, condemnation, accusations, then we are no better than Pharisees.
And this love is something we do, it’s not an emotional, “I love you, now go on about your business.” Love is hospitality, love is helping those who need it, particularly the widows and orphans, the poor, sick, and needy. Jesus’ love was to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: die for our sins and be saved. This was a mark of the early Christian churches; pagan and secular cultures did not care for the poor. When the Christians showed love, they were advertising the love of God in them.
But the Ephesians had forgotten their first love, and Jesus says that if they do not repent of their unloving nature, then He will remove their lampstand. I heard a term recently called “The Ephesus Syndrome” where Christians and churches become totally preoccupied with fine points of doctrinal theology, pre-trib vs mid-trib, and find they have drifted away from makes surrounding to Christ all the worthwhile – a fervent love for the God who created us, and a love for one another.
About 4 years ago I was blessed to take a trip to Israel and some of the destinations on Paul’s journey. The city is amazing; the amphitheater where Paul taught could hold 25,000 people. The city library was enormous. But there is no active Christian church there today, no weekly congregation, no worship services on the Sabbath. Their lampstand has been removed.
For those who remember that our number one commandment is love God with all our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength, and also to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, Jesus gives this promise –
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
The tree of life was there in the Garden of Eden, and will be planted again many times over in the New Jerusalem of Revelation 22. Jesus was victorious over death, and those who love the Lord share in that victory and live forever.
III. To the Church in Smyrna, Revelation 2:8-11
I think we have to move along more quickly. There are seven churches, and if I spent only 4 minutes a church, we’ll use up our half hour. So our second church is Smyrna, and following our pattern, Jesus tells us who he is,
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.
Jesus is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last. The entire purpose of the Old Testament is to give us insight into who God is and point to a Messiah. The New Testament give us the Good News that we are saved from the death of our sins, and Revelation will tell us our future, our lives forever with the One who loves us so much he was crucified for us, who died and now lives.
The praise to Smyrna:
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. 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.
The people of Smyrna lived in a culture of Jews, non-Jews, pagans, and the early church. The word “Satan” literally means “the accuser,” so the synagogue of Satan was full of Jews accusing the early Christians of all kinds of wickedness. As a result, they were persecuted and imprisoned, suffering as Jesus did to demonstrate His love for us.
And the fault Jesus finds? None. Only in the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia does Jesus find nothing to condemn. For those that hold to the end, willing to demonstrate the love of Jesus even under persecution, imprisonment, and death, Jesus praises them as victors.
IV. To the Church in Pergamum, Revelation 2:12-17
Church number three, the Church in Pergamum. Jesus announced himself as –
To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.
This echoes the words in Hebrews 4:12,
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
And the beginning of the book of John 1:1,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus is the Word, and if you let the Word into your heart, read the scripture and pray for wisdom, the Word will show you what is unworthy and must be surgically removed, cut out of your life. Jesus calls us to repentance from our sins. We will always struggle without our own sins, but I discovered it is impossible to sin while calling on the name of Jesus. Can’t do them both at the same time. If I’m am doing or saying something I ought not to be doing or saying, I am also trying hard not to think of Jesus. And if I am thinking of Jesus, I find it impossible to willfully sin.
And the more we imbue ourselves with the Word, the more righteously we wish to live, and the more shortcomings we find in ourselves, and the more we give thanks that we don’t have to fail in our sins. Jesus has already saved us, and we start that process by reading His Word, the two-edged sword the shows us what is truly in our hearts.
Now the praise for Pergamum –
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.
Pergamum was the seat of Roman power in the region. Paganism was the culture, temples built to worship prostitution, idolatry of self. The very seat of evil. Yet the little church in Pergamum was faithful, despite being surrounded by wickedness.
So how do we live when we are surrounded by wickedness? When living in a culture that celebrates sin? A culture that celebrates homosexuality, that celebrates selfishness and pride? There were two stories in the news this week that revolted me. One was an app called Ashley something, I didn’t bother to go look it up again. It’s an app for adulterers. Married men who want to have sex with married women other than their own. The app promised confidentiality so you could have your affair without all that bother of your spouse finding out. I was appalled there was an app for that. But some hacker broke into their database and copied all the names off the credit cards used. The users might be confidential, but they still had to use a credit card with their name on it. Busted.
The other story was the Planned Parenthood selling baby parts for profit, and discussing how to preserve the parts in a “less crunchy” way so they could make more money. Again, I was appalled. They also claim that abortions aren’t killing babies, they’re just a clump of cells to which I ask, then where did these little hearts and brains and arms and legs come from? In the Old Testament, the evil Ammonites worshipped Molech, a protecting father figure. To bring about Molech’s protection, a statue of Molech was made of bronze and their outstretched arms were heated red-hot. Living children were then placed in Molech’s arms and died there. The way some in our culture worship Planned Parenthood, Molech is alive and well in our country.
Like Pergamum, we are surrounded by evil, but we are called to be in this world, but not of this world. Jesus praised Pergamum for remaining faithful.
But Jesus had something against Pergamum –
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. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
Some in Pergamum tried to remain faithful *and* blend into the culture. They welcomed teachings of Balaam alongside teachings of Jesus. The Nicolaitans were also mentioned in the Church of Ephesus earlier, but we don’t know much about them except Jesus hated their teachings. They enticed the Israelites into sexual immorality, and I cannot help but see the parallels with those liberal churches in our country performing same-sex marriages. Jesus is not pleased and fights against this evil with the sword of truth, the word of life, the Holy Scripture.
And the promise,
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
The “secret manna” is God’s truth, hidden in scripture. For those who believe, it’s spiritual nourishment, and for those who don’t, it’s nonsense. And the white stone is a ticket of admission to God’s Kingdome, personally engraved, and represents a new, intimate relationship. Jesus has a special name for you and me if we are victorious, a nickname that Jesus gives us known only by us.
V. To the Church in Thyatira, Revelation 2:18-26
Church number 4, the Church in Thyatira. Who does Jesus say that He is?
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.
Jesus sees all and nothing is hidden from His sight, a blazing fire that compels us to repent of our hidden things. The burnished bronze feet may be a reference to the city of Thyatira which was known for its trade guilds, particularly trade in smelting copper and bronze. The coins minted at the time showed the local Roman ruler, Apollo Tyrimnaeus, the patron deity of the bronze trade, and on the other side, the Roman Emperor who was also known at the time as the ‘son of god.’ The imagery here shows that whatever our boasts of our own importance, Jesus stands on and above everything.
Jesus’s praise for Thyatira,
I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
Jesus recognized them for their love and faith and service and perseverance, all good things. But His complaints are more focused –
Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 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. 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.
Like Pergamum allowing the teachings of Balaam, Thyatira is faulted for allowing “Jezebel” to live among them, a reference to 1st and 2nd Kings and the story of Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel introduced the worship of Baal into Israel. Immoral sex was a temptation into a pagan worship that corrupted the pure faith of the Israelites. Allowing a freedom of sexual immorality into the church teachings corrupts the purity of the faith, and Jesus is not pleased. The church has no business condoning any sort of pagan practice or sexual immorality.
For those that remain faithful,
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, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’ – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
One day, every knee will bow to the authority of Jesus, and those who place their faith and trust in the Lord will share in that day, and Jesus will give the morning star to them. Jesus is the morning star, showing how loving and how intimate our relationship with Jesus will be as He gives Himself to us in love.
VI. To the Church in Sardis, Revelation 3:1-6
Jesus says this about Himself –
To 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.
The seven stars we already mentioned, these are the leaders and pastors of the seven churches. The seven spirits are mentioned four times in the book of Revelation, and refer back to Isaiah 11:1-3 where each of the spirits are named in a prophecy about the ancestry of Jesus,
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
Jesus has praise for the church of Sardis, but their lack of enthusiasm shows. The church will die without a love for the will of Jesus –
I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God. 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.
To the church of Sardis, this was a powerful message. Six hundred years before Jesus, Sardis was considered unconquerable. It sat on a high hill and was impenetrable. And the people became lazy about their security.
But King Cyrus of the Persians did it. Cyrus sent an advance scout at night who climbed the high walls and opened the gate. By the morning, the Persians had conquered the city.
The same thing can happen to us if we let our enthusiasm wane. The seven spirits keep the church alive – the Spirit of the Lord, wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear. We must be ever vigilant that we continually focused on the will of God so that we do not become complacent and lazy. If we become lazy about our faith, sin will find a way in. We must be ever vigilant against the evil one, and keep our eyes focused on Jesus.
The promise from Jesus is that all is not lost
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. 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. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Those who walk with Jesus are considered worthy before the Lord and will walk with Jesus. Our names will not be blotted out of the book of life. After Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and found out that while he was gone, Aaron had made a golden calf for the people to worship, God says in Exodus 32:32-33 that those that sinned will be blotted out of the Lord’s book of life. And in these days when John was writing Revelation, it was common for Greek cities to maintain a list of all the citizens. But when a citizen was condemned to death, cities didn’t want their reputation to be tarnished. Cities never executed their own citizens. First, the city would blot the name of the offender from the list of citizens, *then* they would execute him.
Sin separates us from God. Jesus saves us from eternal separation and makes sure our names remain in the book of life, never to be blotted out. And Jesus will acknowledge us – personally, by name, in front of God the Father.
VII. To the Church in Philadelphia, Revelation 3:7-11
Church number six is Philadephia. About Himself, Jesus says,
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.
The imagery of the key of David comes from Isaiah 22:22. All authority has been given to Jesus, and his royal key can open any heart, a message for us when we spread the good news that it is not us, never has been us, that brings salvation to another. Jesus alone holds that key. It is our responsibility to share what Jesus has done for us, and Jesus will unlock the hearts of those who hear Him knock.
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. 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. 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.
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 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. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Jesus has only praise for the Church of Philadelphia. They teach truth, they practice love, they endure patiently. The synagogue of Satan isn’t intended to be anti-Jewish; this message is written to the Jews that have accepted Christ as their long awaited messiah. Those that accuse will one day realize that the very messiah they have been waiting for has come and loved those who place their faith in Him.
Those that are victorious in Jesus will wear a crown of victory and become a pillar in the temple of God. Not of stone and marble, but of Jesus and His faithful followers. Today, we have the Holy Spirit living inside, and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, but eventually we will be pillars of the temple of God. And His promise of intimacy with Jesus is given again to us, that he will write His name upon us, signifying that we belong to Him forever.
VIII. To the Church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-22
Last church, church number 7. I wasn’t sure we’d get through all seven churches today. Two or three churches would have been plenty for us, would it not? But there’s actually a purpose to going through all seven – the number seven is God’s perfect number – seven stars, seven lampstands, seven spirits, seven churches. I didn’t want to stop at half-perfect.
About Himself, Jesus says –
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.
Jesus is faithful, completely trustworthy, reliable, dependable. He sees all and rules all, and we can trust His promises. It’s not that Jesus is the best, but that Jesus is the only. There is no other place to put our trust other than in the Son of God. He will never leave us, abandon us, mislead us. He is the Amen, the faithful and true witness.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you 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. 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.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. 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.
While Jesus had only praise for two of the churches, for Laodicea He has nothing good to say about them. There is no redeeming feature. This is a worldly church. The people dressed fine, every family was perfect with 2.3 children, and all of the people were above average. They believed they were rich and had everything they needed.
While the city of Laodicea was rich, one thing they were missing was a good supply of water. They were located on a Roman aqueduct system near the river Lycus which is not a big river. Sometimes it dries up completely in the summer. But to the southeast of Laodicea is the town of Colosse with a excellent supply of water. Ice-cold, flowing down from Mount Cadmus, it was fast-flowing and plentiful, excellent to drink. But by the time it flowed to Laodicea 6 miles away, it had warmed by the sun and lost it’s refreshing taste.
To the north of Laodicea was the town of Hieropolis. It has hot springs that are still operational today. The water comes out of the ground, hot and bubbling, full of minerals. That water today is channeled into hotel bathing pools. Aqueducts brought this water to Laodicea, but it had cooled, no longer suitable for bathing. Worse, the concentration of minerals and chemicals made it unsafe to drink.
The word ‘lukewarm’ is translated from the Greek ‘chliaros’ and means “tepid, nauseating, unusable or barren.”
There’s a saying that if Satan isn’t bothering you, then maybe he’s happy with the way you live. Jesus is telling the church that He wants them to be on fire for Him, or get out of the way. Instead, the church is full of smug, self-righteous apathetic lukewarm people.
The single greatest cause of Atheism today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and deny Him by their lifestyle.
This is utterly disgusting to our Lord. He’d rather one be an atheist than a so-called Christian who doesn’t care. Such people the Lord will vomit out of His mouth.
The rich clothes the Laodiceans wore? Filthy rags. The money they had? Worthless. They strutted around in their fine clothes and said to the world, “look how fabulous we are.” And Jesus tells them that their worldly wealth was worthless, and instead of being dressed like royalty, they were really wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. The only thing we can wear that has eternal value is Jesus.
Jesus longs for us to want him, to persevere on His behalf, to be His hands and feet, delivering the love that He first gave to us. He will fellowship with us and be our friend if we just open the door to His love.
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. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
To those who are faithful to our Lord, He offers more than we can imagine. C.S. Lewis opened a sermon once with these words,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The Lord desires our love in action. In return, he invites us not just to a place somewhere in heaven, but right next to Him on His throne. Such glory I cannot fathom, to see all of creation sitting next to Jesus on the throne.
The messages to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3 show us that the Church was destined to face trials throughout the centuries before Jesus Christ would return. Yet God promised to reward His Church and individual members if they would remain faithful to Him.
These rewards include eating from the tree of life (Revelation 2:7), being given the crown of life (verse 10), being given a new name (verse 17), being given power over the nations (verse 26), having one’s name written in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5), becoming a pillar in God’s temple (verse 12) and sitting with Christ on His throne (verse 21). This encouragement from God reminds us that serving Him is well worth the effort. And Jesus alone has the authority and the power to give us new life.
Let’s not settle for anything less.
To God be the glory.