The Book of Revelation opens with a three part introduction. There is a prologue, a letter introduction, and a historical introduction. The word revelation introduces the book’s visionary nature as apocalyptic writing. God communicated His message through mysterious symbols, numbers, and word pictures. The revelation is from Jesus Christ. Notice there is no “S” at the end of revelation. This is one revelation , not many. Jesus is both the source and the main subject of this book. He is speaking to John, the disciple He loved, who has faithfully reported everything Jesus revealed to him. As with other writings and other apostles, John writes as an eyewitness to the amazing things in this book. The emphasis is on the sacrificial witness of Jesus. Revelation contains seven promises of blessings and God had promised to bless all who read the wordsof this book, listen to its message, and obey what it says. The time is near. This is a reference to when Christ returns. The second introduction spans verses 4-8. This is in the style of a Greek letter. The letter goes to seven churches in Asia. This doesn’t mean there are only seven churches. These seven represent the entire group of churches. John wishes the readers grace and peace. This is typical and consistent and indicates that peace flows from God’s grace. We see that God has always been in control and always will be. He is the God who is, who was, and who will come again. God is sovereign over every single situation. The sevenfold Spirit may refer to the angels of the seven churches, to seven other angels, or to the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Others believe that since the reference comesbetween references to God the Father and God the Son, this is a reference to the Trinity. Still others believe this refers to the knowledge of the Lord, counsel, wisdom, might, understanding, power, and the fear of the Lord. The number seven acknowledges the Holy Spirit’s perfection. In verses 5-6 John gives his reasons for praising Jesus. Doxologies often conclude with the word amen, which means it shall be so. John gives three different descriptions for Jesus Christ. First Jesus is the faithful witness. He is our role model for proclaiming the Good News of salvation. The second truth is that Jesus was the first to rise from the dead. Third, as ruler of all the kings of the world Jesus is the Lord of absolutely everything. Many early Christians died for that belief. John also acknowledged that the reason we have hope is because Jesus freed us from our sins by His shed blood. John also echoes 1 Peter 2:9 by referring to us as a kingdom of priests.
Jesus comes with the clouds of heaven and all will see Him. Coming with the clouds recalls Daniel’s vision of the coming of the Son of Man. (Daniel 7:13.) All will see, even those who crucified Him. This means universally as opposed to only the few who saw Him at His birth in Bethlehem. The mourning comes from those who may regret their unbelief. I AM is the name of God in the Old Testament and Jesus has applied this name to himself. First the seven I AM statements in John’s gospel and now here. Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. These are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet meaning Christ’s actions are all encompassing. God is fully, totally in control. Verses 9-11 are the third introduction. This shows God communicating with humanity in historical events. John was isolated on the island of Patmos, away from the rest of the apostles but he still shared a sense of community with them through their shared suffering that was based on the hope Jesus Christ has promised all believers. And John was there because he was preaching the Good News. By John’s time Jews were persuading Roman authorities that Christianity was different than Judaism and therefore not an authorized religion. It was open season on Christians. John was worshiping in the spirit on a Sunday when a loud voice from behind him spoke like a trumpet blast. John was commanded to write down everything he saw and then send it to the seven churches. Each of the seven churches received the entire book plus an individual letter from Christ. God authorized John as a prophet and the herald of His revelation.
John’s first vision is a symbolic picture of Jesus Christ as the wise, secure, and powerful agent of God who cares for His people. When John turned to see who was speaking to him, he saw seven golden lamp stands. The lighted menorah was a symbol of God’s presence among His people and of His all seeing eyes in the world. These seven lamp stands represent the seven churches already mentioned. Son of Man was a title Jesus used for Himself and He was standing among the lamp stands. This was a reassurance that Jesus was amid the churches. The long garment and the gold sash means Jesus is dressed like the high priest, showing purity and holiness. White hair represent wisdom and maturity, again a reflection of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient One or Ancient of Days. Eyes that reflect fire and flames pierce through everything. In other words, the one who sees and knows everything will judge everyone. Having feet that are burnished bronze indicates security, strength, and power as well as His treading everything underfoot. God’s voice is loud, powerful, and authoritative. When He speaks all will hear. Seven stars represent the complete church and it is secure in the right hand of the Son of Man. The picture of Jesus’s face like the sun in brilliance is a throwback to the transfiguration. The sharp sword coming out of His mouth is both His effective message and His judgement. John experienced terror and a dead faint at this sight. This was and is not unusual when someone is in the presence of the Almighty. The Lord responded with grace, placing His right hand on John and telling him not to fear. And then Jesus told John He is God. He used His official name, I AM. When Jesus speaks of Himself as He who lives, and was dead and is alive forevermore, He is referring to His eternal existence. He has conquered death. He holds the keys of deathand controls the outcome of our greatest fear. Jesus has complete authority to provide hope in a hostile world. Again John is commanded to write. This revelation is intended to help the church, then and now, understand the present and the future from God’s perspective. John is told to write because this is an instructive word for the churches. And God explained the mystery of the seven stars in His right hand. Angels or messengers could be the guardian angels of these churches, the leading officials of the churches, or a personification of the ethos or culture of the church. Most likely this is a combination of the first and third suggestions.
The rest of today’s reading is a devoted to the letters to the seven churches. They reflect the state of the early church. We don’t look much different today really. God is still calling us to faithfulness and integrity today. Those who heed the message here will reap God’s promised rewards. Those who fail to do so will be judged. So here we go with the seven letters.
The letter to the church in Ephesus addresses tradition bound Christians who are faithful but have lost their early, zealous love for Christ and for each other. “Write to the angel” is a command that begins each of the seven letters. Ephesus had become the main city of the Roman province of Asia. The temple of Artemis was there. Ephesus had become the richest banking center in the world. They were very independent, declining help from Alexander in rebuilding their temple after it was destroyed by an earthquake. Their protective pride also led to an uproar against Paul. Christ said “I know” a refrain repeated in all the letters as well. Christ knew their activities and their circumstances. They had a good theology and it was marked by perseverance and faithfulness. They had examined various claims, exercised discipline on evil people, were able to discern what was true and false, and they had suffered patiently for their faith in Christ. BUT, they had forgotten the love they had for Christ and for one another in the beginning. The challenges and struggles, especially with the false teachers, had made their love grow cold. All of the good things they had done became an empty shell without love. The same is true for us today. If we do many things but without love, they have no meaning or value. Here Christ is calling back even those who have faith to repent of their cold heartedness. If not, He will remove their lamp stand which means they will lose their status as a church. God would treat them as He did the apostates in Israel. Not a whole lot is known about the Nicolaitans. Their teaching was heretical, perhaps having to do with food sacrificed to idols. It also,appeared some of their worship practices were immoral and maybe even idolatrous. The reward for obedience is fruit from the tree of life, that is eternal life.
The letter to the church in Smyrna pictured Christians suffering up under intense pressure. They needed a message of assurance. Smyrna represents a small church that remains faithful to God despite difficult circumstances. The city was an important seaport about 35 miles north of Ephesus. There was a large Roman cult there as well as a large Jewish population. These things made it difficult for Christian believers. However, this church is not rebuked by Christ in some way. Smyrna had been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Like Christ they had been dead but now were alive. It is the only city of the seven that has survived to this day. It is modern day Izmir, Turkey. Here Jesus connected material poverty with the blessing of being rich in God’s kingdom. Jews who had no faith are condemned for aligning themselves with the evil one in hostile opposition to the Christian faith. At the Jewish council of Jamnia, the Jews excluded Christians as unholy heretics. John was not anti Semitic. He was a Jew describing the actions of fellow Jews against Jewish and Gentile Christians. John saw the evil one as the source of human hostility against Christians. Their suffering would last ten days which symbolized a limited time of persecution. If they remained faithful they would receive the crown of eternal life. Faithfulness until death is described as being victorious, and overcoming the second death means receiving eternal Life.
The letter to the church in Pergamum shows Christians who are tempted to compromise their morality and loyalty to God. Pergamum was said to be the place where parchment was first used. The word Pergamum means Citadel in Greek. It was located roughly 50 miles north of Smyrna and it was situated on a high hill dominating the valley below. There was a famous library in Pergamum. This message came from the one with the sharp two edged sword. This indicates these Christians would receive the Lord’s most severe judgement. The two edged sword was the Roman symbol of authority, which typified Pergamum as capital of the province. If the church failed, the true governor of the city (Christ) would turn His authority against them. The throne of the evil one might well refer to the altar of Zeus on the mountain above the city. It could also refer to the emperor worship at the temple of Augustus. For many years the Roman pro counsel had his throne there and the great temple of Athena and other shrines were also located in Pergamum. Being the city of the evil one might also refer to the temple of Asclepius, whose symbol was coiled snakes. The city was dedicated to the Roman pantheon and emperor worship. Some in Pergamum were syncretists meaning they combined Christianity with paganism and engaged is all manner of activities. John compared them to Balaam who lured Israel into sin. Those who remain faithful will receive manna, food from heaven which has been hidden away there. During the exodus a jar of manna was placed in the ark of the covenant. Jewish tradition said that at the coming of the Messiah , the ark would reappear and manna would be eaten at the Messianic banquet. Jesus is the bread from heaven and the bread of life. White stones were often given to the victors in athletic competitions, and it was common for special banquets or festivities to use a white stone for admission. This suggests acceptance, victory, and invitation. The new name may well be the recipients transformed nature in Christ.
The letter to the church in Thyatira confronts Christians who mix Christianity with pagan practices and a worldly lifestyle. Thyatira was a city with a large military detachment. It was located about 30 miles southeast of Pergamum. They were known for their many trade guilds and their wool and dye industry. The flaming eyes of God indicate penetrating perception, and the solid feet show Christ’s stability. This is incontrast to the nearby Colossus of Rhodes, a gigantic a statue that was thought to be indestructible… until it was toppled by an earthquake and destroyed in 226 BC. In this letter Christ emphasized knowing and seeing all things as He praised the Thyatrians. They have learned, loved, served, been faithful, and exhibited patient endurance. They were even getting better at these things! However, the mention of Jezebel is not good. She led Israel into pagan idolatry and immorality. This unknown Jezebel called herself a prophet but she was leading the people into various forms of immorality. Through messengers such as John, Christ had given this false prophet opportunities to repent of her sinful teachings and actions but like many, she refused. Christ’s judgement on Jezebel and her followers comes in three stages. Jezebel is on a bed of suffering. Disease was often considered an appropriate punishment for sin. Her followers will suffer greatly, and her children will die. This echoes the plagues in Egypt that ended with the death of the firstborn sons. God sees all thoughts and intentions and He gives whatever sentence people deserve. However, there were those in Thyatira who had not fallen prey to this Jezebel. Christ asked that they remain faithful until He comes. The depths of the evil one could be the secrets known by those who have been initiated into the things of the evil one. The reward for this is that they will share authority with Him as symbolized by the iron rod that will smash the opposition like clay pots. This is a quote from Messianic Psalm 2:8-9. The morning star is Christ Himself. For the overcoming believer, Christ’s presence is the light in the dark and difficult times before the Son’s coming. Also, morning star refers to the faithful believers share in the glory and splendor of Christ. The morning star is also the planet Venus, which signals the coming of a new day. Here it refers to the promise of resurrection at Christ’s return.
Next comes the message to the church in Sardis. This city is nearly 50 miles east of Smyrna on the southeast highway from Pergamum to Thyatira. It was home to a large colony of prosperous Jews, called “Shepherdic” after the city’s ancient name. The city had been the capital of Lydia. The worship of the Roman Caesar and Artemis, the goddess of fertility were active here. It’s fortified acropolis gave its residents a false sense of security. This letter comes from the one who has the sevenfold spirit of God and the seven stars. It might be that other churches looked at the church in Sardis and believed they were a dynamic church, but their secularism revealed their lack of spiritual life. They needed to wake up or they would fall flat. In fact John wrote that they were dead. This city that thought it was impenetrable because of its position on the hill was actually attacked through a secret tunnel, and the watchmen were caught off guard. The same would be true if the Christians didn’t refocus on the Lord. God would come like a thief in the night. Like the invaders in the city’s history, Christ would return just as suddenly and catch them unawares. But, there were those in the city who had not yet soiled their clothes. Soiled clothes represent an impure life while white clothes represent purity. Those who have not gotten dirty will find themselves walking with the Lord in those white garments. And even better, their names will never be removed from the Book of Life. Having your name in this book is the assurance of God’s acceptance and eternal life. For God to erase names implies condemnation and eternal death.
The letter to the church in Philadelphia encourages Christians who seem to be weak and powerless to realize that their true strength is in Christ. This is a message of comfort and there are no words of disapproval. The kingdom of God does not depend on human strength or wisdom but in God’s power and authority. Philadelphia means brotherly love. This was a small city about 40 miles southeast of Sardis. It’s location, vineyards, and wine production made it wealthy and commercially important. The city was situated in the Timolus Mountains, open to fertile plains to the east. But they experienced frequent severe earthquakesthat left them weak and impoverished. The key of David represents authority as the One who opens and shuts the door in the Davidic kingdom, a prerogative that is Christ’s as the rightful Son of David. As the gatekeeper of heaven Jesus has the authority to open and close the way there. Like the city of Philadelphia itself, the Christians there were not prosperous and they lacked status and power. But Christ had opened a door for them to claim His status and authority. In spite of theirweakness, the Philadelphia church was obedient and didn’t deny Jesus in their struggles and suffering. The Christians in Philadelphia had suffered mistreatment by anti Christian Jews but these people would eventually be forced to worship before the church and to acknowledge that Christ had loved His own. In the ancient world captives were often forced to prostrate themselves before their conquerors. The churches human enemies would ultimately acknowledge that Christians are the ones God loves. Jesus will protect Christians who persevere through trials. There will be a time of great testing at the end times when the world experiences tribulation. Christ calls Christians to hold on, and persevere in difficulty so they do not lose their victors crown. Christ promised that the faithful believers will be a pillar in the temple of God. A pillar is the most stable and permanent part of the building. This indicates a prominent place of service in Christ’s kingdom. The name of God that is inscribed on them portrays God’s ownership and the security Christians will enjoy. The new Jerusalem is not a realm constructed by humans but a gift from God in heaven. A new name was a sign of God’s blessing. Think about Abram, Jacob, Simon, Sari and others who were given new names.
The letter to the church in Laodicea castigates lukewarm Christians whose inconsistent lives stand for nothing but themselves. They sicken Christ to the point of His spitting or vomiting them out of His mouth. Laodicea was 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia and 90 miles east of Ephesus. It was a wealthy city with thriving banks, a textile industry, and a medical school. The city was also known for their sparse water supply. Laodicea was the economic and judicial center of a metropolitan region that included Colosse and Hierapolis. The citizens of Laodicea were very proud of their self sufficiency. After a severe earthquake in 60 AD they refused help from Rome and rebuilt the city themselves, making it very beautiful. This message is from the one who is the Amen. Used as an oath amen is a promise of truth and Jesus is the truth. His message is made authentic by the truthfulness and reliability of His word. The description of the faithful and true witness declares that He knew them as they really were. Though they were wealthy and very proud of their elite status and accomplishments, they didn’t measure up to God’s expectations. They were like their water supply; neither hot or cold. They were tepid. The hot springs in Hierapolis were famous for their healing qualities. Colosse was equally famous for its cold, refreshing springs. In contrast, the water in Laodicea was both smelly and lukewarm. This sort of water is distasteful. Jesus was saying that their commitment to Him was indecisive, distasteful, and revolting. And although Christians in Laodicea felt prosperous and self sufficient, Jesus actually saw their wretched, miserable and poor spiritual condition. Jesus’ prescription for them was a complete overhaul of their attitude moving from self reliance to dependency on God. They could buy whatever they wanted but they needed to acquire treasures in heaven so they would have spiritual riches through faith in Christ. Being purified by fire is often painful but Christ here means that material wealth will burn in the fire butspiritual wealth has eternal value. White garments represent spiritual purity. Black wool cloth and garments were prized exports of the city of Laodicea. This famous black wool was a source of Laodicea’s wealth; representing their proud and unredeemed spiritual condition. Their wealth was also due to their well known Phrygian eye ointment which was used in theeye clinic associated with the famed doctor Demosthenes. The Laodiceans needed instead to buy ointment from Christ through faith. Only His eye salve would enable them to see their sin and repent. A person or church must hear Jesus knocking and open the door to Him. Christ provides a pattern of revival for a church that has grown spiritually weak and fallen out of fellowship with Him. Simply opening the door can renew their former bond. After the door is opened and Jesus enters in, all will share a meal. A shared meal signifies acceptance, deep friendship, and a covenant relationship. The reward for victorious and obedient faith is to sit with Christ on His throne. Christians do not become divine but they share in Christ’s victorious reign.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W