Revelation 2 And 3 – Seven Letters To Seven Churches, Part 1
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
According to Revelation 1:11, the book was written to seven congregations in Asia, modern Turkey. For 2,000 years scholars have wondered why such an important message would be sent to these churches since they weren’t even the most important of their day, let alone now. True, Ephesus was a leading city of the time, but the church there was small and so were the others. Why wasn’t the book written to the Church in Rome, for example? Surely the Lord knew that Rome would be the capital of Christianity for much of church history, the perfect addressee for such a timeless message. Or how about Jerusalem, where the Church was born?
The answer lies in the realization that the letters of chapters 2 and 3 have a representative as well as a specific purpose. They can actually be read with four levels of application.
Four Levels of Application
The first level is historical. These seven churches really existed and each was experiencing the particular problem to which the Lord referred as He dictated the letters to John. Second, since all the churches were to read all the letters, they were also admonitory to all. Third, since both the challenge and promise with which each letter ends are personal rather than corporate, the letters were for individuals as well as congregations. And fourth, read in the order in which they appear they outline church history and so are prophetic. They chronicle the gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel’s 70 weeks prophecy. (Daniel 9:24-27)
The Lord begins each letter with a different one of the 24 titles that are used to describe Him in the book, and the title He selects gives a clue to the letter’s theme. The name of each Church also contains a clue. Each letter can be divided into seven parts, the Lord’s title being the first one. Then come a commendation, a criticism, an admonition, a call, a challenge, and a promise. Two of the seven letters, Sardis and Laodicea, contain no commendation, and in two, Smyrna and Philadelphia, no criticism is given. Pergamum has no admonition, but has two criticisms. In the last 4 letters the challenge and the promise are reversed.
I’ll dissect each letter into its component parts as we go. And since I visited the sites of each of the seven churches a few years ago, I’ll include a personal note or two as well. By the way, each letter also bears an interesting resemblance to one of the 7 Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13, and to one of the 7 letters Paul wrote to churches. (Paul actually wrote 13 letters, not counting Hebrews, but four were to individuals and two were second letters to churches he had written previously.) With that, let’s get started.
To the Church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7)
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: Ephesus means darling, or beloved, maiden of choice. Ephesus represents the 1st century church. (Title)“These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.” In using this title the Lord identifies Himself as the One who came to visit John, the One with authority over the Church, and the One to whom the Church owes affection as well as allegiance.
(Commendation)“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, 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.” The Church in Ephesus had worked tirelessly to remain true to His Gospel.
(Criticism) “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” Already the church had become so busy in its service to the King that it had forgotten about the King! The relationship He sought was turning into another religion.
(Admonition) “Remember the height from which you have fallen!” How many times have we heard friends comment about the “good old days” when they were new believers?
(Call)“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.” Here’s the remedy. Go back to doing what you did at first. Remember when you couldn’t get enough of the Bible? When you showed up at church half an hour early, just because you loved being there, and didn’t want to leave when the service was over? How you kept up a running conversation with the Lord that began when you woke up in the morning and didn’t end till you fell asleep at night?
The Nicolaitans were a heretical sect that advocated a blending of pagan customs, like eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality, into Christian worship. There’s only One worthy to receive our worship, and worshipping Him is the Church’s primary purpose.
The lamp stand is identified in Rev 1:20 as the church, so removing it means removing the church of Ephesus. Though the ruins of Ephesus are extensive and impressive, requiring most of a day to see, when we were there a few years ago we found only the faintest traces of a 1st century church in Ephesus.
(Challenge)“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Reach up along each side of your head. Do you have ears there? Then this letter was written to you. Though the letter to Ephesus describes the Apostolic era, the church struggles with the same problems today. The church as a whole is too distracted with programs and plans, your congregation is too busy implementing them, and you’re too busy helping. We’re human beings, not human doings, and once we’re saved being with the Lord in fellowship is our life’s purpose.
(Promise)“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Because of the emphasis on good works and programs in the church today, many who call themselves Christians, and rightly consider themselves to be hard working members of their congregations, have never taken the time to meet the King they claim to serve and receive the pardon He purchased for them with His life. How shocked they’ll be to hear Him say, “I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers.” (Matt. 7:23)
The first of the Kingdom Parables, the Sower and the Seed, applies here. It teaches that while the seed was sown in all the world, it only found fertile ground in a small part. And of course Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is the clearest description of how we are already perceived by God, having been saved by grace, not by works lest anyone boast.
To the Church in Smyrna (Rev 2:8-11)
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:” Smyrna means crushed. It comes from the same root as Myrrh, an embalming spice the released its aroma when crushed. Smyrna represents the 2nd and 3rd Century church that suffered intense persecution.
(Title) “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” The emphasis in the title is obvious, overcoming death.
(Commendation) “I know your afflictions and your poverty yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” The first to persecute the church were Jews. Polycarp, the most famous of the early martyrs was the Bishop of Smyrna and was burned at the stake there at age 86.
(Admonition) “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.” The ten days refers to the reigns of 10 Roman Caesars, covering a period of 250 years.
(Call) “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” There’s no promise of deliverance, only of reward in Heaven. The stories of believers’ grace in the face of death while ingenious and diabolical methods were employed to exterminate them as a form of public entertainment have achieved legendary status.
(Challenge) “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Many of us in the west have never faced serious threats on account of our faith, but world wide the number of Christian martyrs has averaged over 1 million per year for the last 10 years. Their number will only grow as the End draws nearer.
(Promise) “He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.”” The old adage goes: Born once, die twice. Born twice die once. It’s the second death that you have to watch out for. It’s the permanent one.
Today a prosperous city called Izmir, third largest in Turkey, stands where ancient Smyrna once was. An incident that clearly displayed the Lord’s sense of humor while emphasizing the point of the letter, happened as we drove through the city. We saw prominent signs on a freeway exit just outside Izmir pointing to Smyrna and thinking we had found the ancient site, I quickly pulled off. But at the bottom of the short exit ramp was a T intersection with no indication as to which way we should turn. And there were no more signs pointing the way to Smyrna. After an hour of driving back and forth searching in both directions, I gave up and drove on. I didn’t get the point till later after describing the event to our Turkish travel agent. He told me the sign points to where Symrna was. There’s no trace of Smyrna today. The church of Smyrna is in heaven.
The parable of the Tares and the Wheat carries similar insights to this letter, as does Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the theme of which is joy through suffering.
To the Church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17)
“To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:” Pergamum means mixed marriage and represents the merger of pagan and Christian practices in the 4th century when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
(Title) “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” In Hebrews 4:12 the double-edged sword is used to describe God’s Word, the source of Truth.
(Commendation) “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, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city where Satan lives.” With the establishment of Baghdad as the major distribution center between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea following Alexander’s death, Babylon had gone into decline so the original mother/child cult religion moved its headquarters from there to Pergamum. (It eventually settled in Rome.) The reference to Satan’s home there shows the true source of this false religion.
(Criticism 1) “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you:” You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. (Criticism 2) “Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” These pagan practices crept into the church at Pergamum, just as they had in Ephesus.
(Call) “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” The truth of the Gospel has always been the best defense against the cults.
(Challenge) “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” There’s still plenty of idolatry in the church. Maybe you parked yours in the parking lot, or shaved its face this morning, or keep it in a bank downtown.
(Promise) “To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.” Just as the black ball was a vote against someone, a white stone was a sign of trust. When an important businessman had to complete a transaction in a distant city, he didn’t travel there. It was too dangerous. Instead he sent a trusted servant empowered to act on his behalf. The servant carried a coin like form of identification made of baked white clay. The seal of the businessman being represented was pressed into the clay as was a secret name, known only to the other party in the transaction. By the presentation of the white stone, the servant authenticated himself as being entitled to all the rights and privileges of his master. In this way, our Lord Jesus will identify us as being entitled to all the rights and privileges due Him, when we enter into the Presence of our Father in Heaven.
Our Lord instructed the Disciples to go into all the world (Matt 28:19-20), but in Pergamus the world came into the church. In the 4th century the Edict of Milan made Christianity legal and ultimately the official religion of the Empire. When that happened, pagan festivals became Christian holidays. The Feasts of Saturnalia and Ishtar became Christmas and Easter. This explains why such pagan symbols as the Yule log and evergreen tree, which symbolized the sun dying and being born again at the winter solstice, are associated with Christmas, while fertility symbols like rabbits and eggs are connected with Easter. Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility.
The impressive ruins on a hill 1000 feet above the surrounding valleys near modern Bergama are markedly pagan with remains of great temples to Roman gods and emperors but only faint traces of the church that was there.
The parable of the Mustard Seed tells of a small seed that grows into something it was never intended to be and is a prophecy of what can happen when the world and the church are mingled. And Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the worldly church, is an obvious parallel.
Children Of A Mixed Marriage
It’s my belief that the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamus have all disappeared, symbolically and in reality. But the marriage of pagan and Christian beliefs in Pergamus produced 4 offspring that all survive to this day and are represented by the four remaining letters. We’ll cover them next time.