[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
Message to the Seven Churches
(1) Find the seven cities mentioned in chapters two and three on a map. Are there other churches in the area? Why do you suppose these seven are selected? Is there any signficance tot he order in which they are mentioned?
(2) Compare the seven letters. What is commended and criticized in each church? Do all have both good and bad points?
(3) How is Christ described at the beginning of each letter? Compare with 1:12-20. How does each description relate to the content of the letter?
(4) How is John’s pastoral concern reflected in the letters?
(5) What general themes are prominent in these letters? How do they relate to the rest of the New Testament? To the church today?
2:1–3:22—Message to the Seven Churches
The seven letters are addressed to specific churches as communities and to the whole church in general, not to individuals. The reference to “the angels of the seven churches” likely reflects the Jewish idea that angels are spiritual representations of earthly realities. In this context they represent the churches seen as spiritual entities.
The seven cities were all located on a main Roman road and formed a circuit, starting with Ephesus (which was nearest to Patmos). From these centers the whole area could be covered. As such, they were perhaps an already-recognized group. The details of each local situation add up to a unified message for all the churches, which the number seven symbolizes.
The themes in these letters show us what the particular pastoral concerns were for John in writing the whole book. There are four concerns in particular that stand out: (1) For Ephesus it was lack of love. (2) For Smyrna and Philadelphia it was external persecution. (3) For Pergamum and Thyatira it was false teaching and religious syncretism. (4) For Sardis and Laodicea it was spiritual sleep and accommodation to the world. These are the basic concerns that John wants to help his readers with and attempts to do so by communicating the visions of the rest of the book.
The seven letters are constructed in essentially the same way, beginning with a commission, followed by a mention of a characteristic of Jesus drawn from 1:12-18, a commendation for faithful things the church was doing (except Sardis and Laodicea), condemnation for unfaithfulness (except Philadelphia and Smyrna), a correction, a call (“He who has an ear…”), and a challenge.
One common term in each letter is “to him who conquers,” also translated “to him who overcomes” and “to the victor.” This person is the one who is rewarded. The victors are those who keep Jesus’ words until the end (2:26), who have chared the victory of Christ (3:21). This, in the context of the book as a whole, is clearly referring to being faithful to Jesus Christ and his will even to the point of martyrdom. The martyrs are those who, clothed inthe white robes of victory, have come out of great tribulation and have washed their robes inthe blood of the Lamb (7:13-14). They have conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb (12:11). They have conquered the beast and his image (15:2).
2:1-7—Message to Ephesus
This is the letter to the church at Ephesus. Verse 1 pictures Jesus holding stars and walking among the candlesticks (see 1:12, 16). This indicates his presence inthe church and that he knows what is going on int he church and desires to be with them. Plus, it indicates his ultimate power over them. Jesus knows their faithfulness. He knows of their strength against persecution and their rejection of false teachers and their ongoing strength. Ephesus was a major metropolis and had two temples devoted to emperor worship. In the midst of this, the church remained vital and pure.
However, they were lacking in love. This lack of love for people was leading to a lack of good works. Apparently hearts in the church were hardened in the battle against persecution and false teaching. Jesus’ threat to the church at Ephesus was perhaps the most serious threat to any church: the removal of their candlestick. They would no longer be one of his churches.
Love is not overtly emphasized much in Revelation, but this letter indicates that love is nevertheless assumed to be decisive. without love, truth and fidelity are worthless.
2:8-11—Message to Smyrna
The title of Christ in the letter to the church at Smyrna is “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” This is a word of comfort to a congregation that faced renewed persecution and possible death. The Smyrnans are reminded to follow Jesus’ pattern: Faith life leading to suffering and death, leading to resurrection, leading to exaltation.
The message to this church is totally positive. Though the church was small and suffering and poor, it was a totally faithful church and we therefore rich in God’s eyes.
It is likely that the poverty spoken of in 2:9 was related to the afflictions of the church. They may have experienced confiscation of property, looting by hostile mobs, and difficulty in earning a living in that hostile environment—all because of their faithful witness to Jesus.
One message to the church was that it needed to recognize that while the Roman authorities put them in jail, it was really the devil himself who was behind their plight. The statement that the Smyrnans were to be “tested” (2:10) implies that God would use this to strengthen their faith. One of the purposes of the book as a whole is to show how Satan’s hand can be detected in the affairs of the world and how God uses that which Satan does for God’s ultimate purposes.
The “second death” referred to in 2:11 is probably the “lake of fire” we read about in chapters 19 and 20. It is a reference to final punishment, final separation from God. The conqueror is immune from this judgment. This was a word of assurance that the first death is not ultimate and that the death that really matters would not touch the faithful ones.
2:12-17—Message to Pergamum
In the letter to Pergamum, Jesus is the one with the “sharp two-edged sword.” Jesus is the one who discerns truth and exposes and deals with falsehood. Christ is more powerful than the sword-wielding Caesar. It is Jesus’ word, not Caesar’s, that unfaithful Christians should fear (2:16).
The reference in 2:13 to “Satan’s throne” could be an allusion to the fact that Pergamum was the Roman empire’s regional governmental headquarters. This is where the earliest temple for state-sponsored emperor worship in the area was built. Already one important church leader, the faithful witness Antipas, had been killed—presumably due to his resistance to emperor worship. Still, the church remained true.
However, the church had tolerated false teaching. “Balaam,” “the Nicolaitans,” and “Jezebel” (2:14-22) all probably refer metaphorically to the same problem: going along with the culture religion inorder to participate more fully in the commercial, political, and social life of their cities. One of the specific manifestations was eating meat sacrificed to idols (perhaps at trade-guild meetings, business associations, and private parties). The term translated “immorality” (2:14) probably has the broader connotations of spiritual infidelity. This might be manifested sexually, but was also manifested in other ways.
What the Thyatiran letter says about “what some call the deep things of Satan” (2:24) indicates that these people were probably influenced by gnosticism, a religious movement of that time that emphasized secret knowledge and spiritual achievement and down-played the physical. Their spirituality would be unaffected by what they did with their bodies.
In both churches, to adhere to these false teachings—or even to tolerate them—would lead to bad consequences. It would turn the church into simply another pagan temple. The church would lose its distinctiveness and its ability to offer an alternative to idol worship and bondage to false gods.
In 2:17 the victor is promised “manna.” This is a calculated contrast to the teaching of the Nicolaitans who eat food sacrificed to idols and are doomed to judgment by the sword of the Lord. The victor will eat the bread of heaven and will be sustained in the kingdom by the power of the Lord. The white stones were used as tickets of admission to public festivals. Here they are perhaps a symbol of admission to the messianic feast.
2:18-29—Message to Thyatira
The title of Christ in the letter to Thyatira reminds the readers that the true Son of God is not the emperor or the guardian deity of the city, but the resurrected Christ. The flaming eyes suggest the penetrating power of Christ’s ability to see through Jezebel’s seductions.
Like the church of Pergamum, the church at Thyatira was faithful in many ways. It did good works, had love, ministry, and patience, and was growing. But also like the church at Pergamum, it tolerated false teaching.
In the Old Testament, Jezebel was the wife of Ahab who attempted to lead Israel into idolatry by the introduction of the cult of Baal. The problem was one of religious fidelity. By using the term “Jezebel,” John was emphasizing that religious fidelity was the issue facing the church at Thyatira—whehter or not Jesus alone was Lord.
Verses 26 and 27, with their reference to the iron rod, contain interesting imagery. Martyrdom is for the “conqueror” a personal victory over temptation and death, but it is also the victory that overcomes the world. Psalm 2:9 is quoted here. The psalmist looked forward to the day when God’s Messiah would “smash” all resistance to God’s kingly rule and assume “authority over the nations.”
John sees this ancient hope transformed in light of the cross. Pagan resistance will indeed be smashed, but God will use no other “iron rod” than the death of his own Son and the martyrdom of the saints.
3:1-6—Message to Sardis
The church at Sardis is “dead.” In 3:1 it is therefore fittingly addressed by Christ, who is “the one who has the seven spirits.” Only the life-giving Spirit of God in all its fullness can bring the dead to life. Neither persecution nor false teaching is mentioned here. Sardis is simply spiritually asleep. Therefore, nothing good can be said about her.
Twice in the city’s history it had been taken unawares and captured by enemies, though it was well-protected. The reference in 3:3 to the church’s lack of vigilance and its need to wake up lest it fall under judgment is a striking parallel. Since Jesus tells the church at Sardis to wake up and warns her that his coming to judge her will be quite unexpected, it seems that the church is not aware of its real spiritual state.
The reference to soiling their clothes in verse 4 indicates that while they outwardly maintained their good works and Christian activities, the Christians of Sardis desried to adapt themsevles to the luxuries and pleasures of their environment. The few that remained faithful are promised white clothes.
3:7-13—Message to Philadelphia
One special problem for the Christians at Philadelphia appears tri have been persecution from Jewish people. So the title of Jesus in 3:7 is significant. Jesus is the “key of David” who now opens the door to God for Gentile Christians, too. Jesus’ work cannot be reversed. He is the only mediator between people and God.
In this letter, like the one to Smyrna, there are no negative statements about the church. “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name” (3:8).
In 3:9, we see that the Jewish hope has been turned upside-down. It was not the Gentile oppressors of Israel who needed to recognize Israel’s primacy in God’s kingdom; it was the Jewish persecutors of the church who needed to see that the church was the new Israel. Christ, “the true holy one” of Israel, loved her in giving his life for her.
The hour of trial referred to in 3:10 is directed toward the entire world, but Christians will be kept safe through it by the spiritual protection Jesus Christ provides against the forces of evil.
“Those who dwell upon the earth” (3:10) is a common phrase in Revelation. It generally refers to those outside the church: its persecutors, the emperor worshipers. Here the reference is to the tribulations revealed in chapters 6 to 20. Faithful Christians are kept fromthem. They may be affected by them, but they will be kept safe in an ultimate sense. These tribulations cannot separate them from God’s love.
The “pillar in the temple” (3:12) and the “new Jerusalem” are promises made to the conquerors that implicitly counter the claims of the Jewish persecutors. They also promise God’s continual presence. Nothing can separate the faithful ones from God “Hold fast”—do not give up.
3:14-22—Message to Laodicea
In the letter to the church at Laodicea, Jesus is the “faithful and true witness” (3:14). This title stands in stark contrast to the useless and tepid church at Laodicea.
Like the church at Sardis, the church at Laodicea is not commended for anything. The onlyu problem mentioned is the church’s uselessness—its total lack of good fruit. Nothing is said about external persecution or false teaching. The church may have been comfortable, but it was misled. “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17).
Apparently the city’s water supply came from mineral spirings and arrived to the city lukewarm. The water was useful “hot” or “cold,” but when it was “lukewarm” it was nauseating and useless. The reference in 3:15, then, may not be to the spiritual temperature of the Laodiceans (with the paradoxical statement that Jesus prefers people to be totally cold spiritually rather than lukewarm). Instead the reference is probably to the barrenness of their works—their lack of faithful witness.
[The fact that Jesus rebukes Laodicea in 3:19 shows that he still loves the church. The threat of total rejection if she would not repent was balanced by the promise of total reinstatement if she would.]
In the chapters that follow, we will see a great deal of trauma and suffering. In the effort to understand and justify it, we need to continually remember what is said here: “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.” Though not a single positive statement about the church appears here, Christ’s love for it is strongly emphasized.
Verse 20 tells us that Christ is present and aware of the church’s faith or lack thereof. The promised (or threatened) coming of Christ is not simply a matter of judgment. It is a matter of God’s love. If it takes the form of discipline now, it is for the purpose of saving people from exclusion when the door is finally shut.
To those who respond in this message and to God’s discipline, the promise is that they will share in Christ’s exaltation (3:21).
The angels of the churches represent the churches as spiritual entities, reflecting an idea common in ancient Judaism that angels were spiritual counterparts to earthly realities. The seven letters are addressed to seven specific churches as communities and to the whole church in general, not to individuals.
The themes in these letters reveal John’s particular pastoral concerns in the book as a whole: (1) lack of love; (2) external persecution; (3) false teaching and mixing Christianity with other religions; and (4) lackadaisicalness, spiritual sleep, accommodation to the world. All that happens in the rest of the book should be understood in this light. Revelation as a whole was meant to bring about obedience in the face of these problems.
Each letter refers to “the one who conquers,” also translated as “the one who overcomes” and “the victor.” This one will be rewarded. The conquerors are those who keep Jesus’ words until the end (2:26), who share the victory of Christ (3:21). These clearly are Christians who are faithful to Jesus and his will to the point of martyrdom, the ultimate victory.
The seven letters anchor the book as a whole in actual history. These are existing churches. The rest of the book was meant to help them be victorious in the midst of their real-life problems.
These seven messages have universal applicability. Churches of all times and places struggle with focusing on doctrinal purity over love as did the church as Ephesus. It is always a temptation to believe (like the church at Laodicea) that external wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and that costly commitment to the way of Jesus is optional. For Christians experiencing persecution for their witness to Jesus, the Lord’s words to the church at Smyrna cut to the heart of the matter: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Though these messages do not say everything about church life, they do raise some pertinent issues.
Jesus strongly commends a number of the churches for their faithfulness to his way in the midst of tribulation. The church at Pergamum did not deny Jesus’ faith even when one of its leaders was killed. The church at Ephesus was enduring patiently. But the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia especially gain Jesus’ approval. He knows that they have experienced tribulation and poverty in the world’s eyes, but he considers them rich. He knows that they have but little power. Yet the most important thing is their faithfulness; that is where true power lies.
Faithfulness inthe midst of tribulation is one of the central themes of the book as a whole. It is one that is perhaps a bit difficult for most of us to relate to. How much tribulation do we encounter due to our faithfulness to Jesus? In the way that these early Christians encountered tribulation—the loss of life orlivelihood—we probably do not encounter a lot. We could askoursevles who not. are we as comfortable as we are because we are not public enough with our faithfulness?
The key point for us is not faithfulness specifically in the midst of poverty and persecution. Rather, the key issue is faithfulness in the midst of whatever temptations the churches face.
These temptations to leave the way of Jesus vary with each church. For the churches at Philadelphia and Smyrna, the temptations were clear. They were tempted to buckle under the pressure of overt persecution. But they were remaining faithful. They were withstanding the temptations. This model gives hope for all Christians who are persecuted. This is the kind of temptation that many of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists faced. Many, like the Smyrnans, were faithful unto death and no doubt received the promised crown of life from God.
Other kinds of temptations also confront the church—ones whichese churches (and many churches since then) have not been so successful in withstanding. Instead of being tempted with poverty and persecution, the church at Laodicea was tempted with wealth and toleration. It was apaarently not faithful. Jesus calls it “wretched, poor, blind, and naked.”
It is fascinating, though sad, to look at the first few hundred years of the Anabaptist movement with regard to these two contrasting kinds of temptation. The 1500s saw the rapid spread of the movement as thousands of Europeans were attracted to this new kind of Christianity that seemed to rtecapture much of the dynamism of the early church. Yet a few hundred years later there were hardly any Anabaptists left, except in eastern Europe and North America.
As I have implied, this was in part due to the faithfulness unto death of many Anabaptists—the refusal to yield to the same temptations faced by Smyrna and Philadelphia. Many were killed or forced to migrate. But many Mennonites, especially in Holland, yielded to the kind of temptations faced by Laodicea. As they gained prosperity and toleration, their faith became lukewarm.
Perhaps the temptations most relevant to us are those faced by the churches at Thyatira and Pergamum. These churches were in many ways faithful to their Lord. But they accepted the teachings of false prophets. They ate food sacrificed to idols and practiced immorality. These things symbolize accommodation to false religions and worldly ideologies.
These churches were willing to tolerate the claims of other gods and other worldviews, along with their commitment to Christ. But according to the Jesus of these letters, this toleration was wrong. His way is the only way. It is to be followed without compromise.
Today in North America, we are not so much tempted by clearly non-Christian worship activities like sacrificing to idols. However, some worldviews (or sets of values), while not claiming to be religious, still make claims on us that are counter to these of Christ. Many accepted values in our culture are actually religious values and tempt us to leave the way of Jesus.
Our challenge is to withstand these temptations. This is one of the main reasons our congregations exist. Together we gain strength to meet this challenge.
What are some of these tempting values? What are our modern-day Balaams and Jezebels?
In times of economic trouble we tend to grasp after our own security first—to join in the panic-striken stampede for the lifeboats, before considering others. The need for security is a real one, but the message of Jesus here and elsewhere is that true security is found only in living according to his ways. “It is in giving that we receive,” as Francis of Assisi said.
The temptation we face is to think that we must cover all the bases for ourselves. When we are thus preoccupied, we lose sight of others, including Jesus. Of course, the corporate expression of this grasping after our own security is seen in our countries’ military policies. Our challenge as congregations is to discern how we together can withstand this temptation and direct our concern outward.
Another manifestation of false values that hinders our worship of God is to despair of change in our own lives and in the world. When we despair, we more or less deny that God is at work in the world. To give in to this temptation is to cut off the possibility of God being manifested in us or through us. To believe that the world can change for the better—that God can and does act—is to open ourselves for involvement as agents of this change.
Another temptation we face is the tendency to think that we have fulfilled our obligations when we give financial support to works of service. It is certainly proper to give this kind of support, but most of all God desires our hearts and lives.
The answer to these temptations is simple: those who have ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The Spirit says we must repent of our unfaithfulness and follow the Lamb wherever he goes. “The one who conquers I will grant to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (3:21).
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(1) Do you think that these are literal, historical churches? If so, why were these letters being placed here to anchor the later visions? (I.e., why were the visions placed in a pastoral context?) Do you see anything pastoral in what comes later in Revelation? Does placing the visions in this context increase their relevance for the church today?
(2) Jesus is portrayed as intimately acquainted with, and concerned ofr, the specific churches. What implications may this picture of Jesus have had for John? Does this intimacy and concern apply to churches today? If not, why not? If so, what are the implications?
(3) How literal were Jesus’ threats to the churches? Do you think they were fulfilled in history? Do they apply to all churches? If so, how will their fulfillment be worked out?
(4) What implications for modern-day churches do the values expressed in these letters have? For instance, the weak, persecuted churches are praised the highest. An “obedient” church is chastened for lack of love (Ephesus). A prosperous, “successful” church is condemned (Laodicea).
(5) Why would Jesus be so concerned about doctrinal purity? What do wyou suppose was at stake inthe controversies with the Nicolaitans, Balaamites, and Jezebelians? Do we have similar controversies today (that is, struggles between radical purists and cultural conformists)? Which side would the Jesus of John’s letters take? What od you think might be analogous today to eating meat sacrificed to idols?
(6) Should the church in North America be persecuted more? Should you own local congregation be persecuted more? What might lead to increased persecution? Why are Christians persecuted today? Do you think that there are “legitimate” and “illegitimate” causes of persecution?
(7) Does visualizing Jesus as the “faithful and true witness” (3:14) with “the sharp two-edged sword” comfort you or frighten you? Why?
(8) To what was Jesus referring when he repeatedly spoke of conquering? What does conquering look like today?