Jesus and His Churches
Jesus and His churches - Revelation chs 2 and 3
The centre of God's purposes
Jesus Christ is seated in Glory and we who love him cannot see him. Yet his eye is on his churches and he cares deeply about us. In Revelation chs. 2 and 3 we see his concern and his commands for each assembly of His people.
It is important to understand that Christ's priority is to save people and then prepare them for Himself through membership of local churches. That is why he speaks to the seven churches before outlining his purposes for the wider world. One of the key messages of the whole book Revelation is that the whole of history exists to serve God's purposes and that these purposes centre on real communities of people - the churches of Christ.
It must have seemed strange to the small groups of believers that God should care so passionately about the state of his churches.
In the modern world it often causes offence to suggest that God might have a chosen people. It offends the spirit of democracy that there might be a specially favoured group in society, beloved of God and set apart for his service. It is nevertheless a central part of the Biblical message. God chose Abraham and that election continued through the patriarchs to Israel and thence to Jesus, the King of the Jews, and from Him on to all, Jew or Gentile, who serve Him as Lord. Outside of Christ there is no election to salvation.
It is no stranger that God should rule the world in favour of the churches than that he should 斗ove Jacob and hate Esau
How different the churches are! They were near each other (the messenger could take a circular walk through part of Asia Minor and deliver each copy of the letter in a couple of weeks) and yet in such varied condition. Some people have seen them as symbolising seven successive eras in the history of the church in the world. The evidence for this is very slight and requires trimming the facts of church history to fit the theory.
So why the seven?
Seven was a special number to both Jews and Greeks. We have already seen the structure of the seven days of creation in the Jewish scriptures will be reflected in the shape of the main body of the Revelation from chapters six to twenty. In Greek thought the number seven was considered unique. Aristotle wrote:
Since seven neither generates any of the numbers in the decad nor is generated by any of them, they called it Athena. For two generates four, and three generates nine and six, and four generates eight, and five generates ten, while four and six and eight and nine and ten are generated, but seven neither generates any of them nor is generated from any. Just this is the character of Athena, who is motherless and always virgin.
Seven is a number which in Revelation implies completeness or wholeness. In this case it seems Jesus is speaking to the whole church through these seven particular examples. Any single congregation may need particular emphasis on one of these letters (which of the seven do you think is closest to your own church's condition?) yet between them we have revealed the whole of Christ's concern for His people, the whole of His revelation to the churches and all His promises for the churches.
A repeated phrase
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
We must hear what he says to ALL the churches and not just what we think we need to hear.
For this reason I will not be dealing with these seven churches separately. If together they represent the whole spectrum of church conditions then it may be helpful to draw together a picture of how churches succeed and fail. Out of that picture and listening to Christ痴 assessments we will gain a fuller understanding of how to serve him together in churches today.
There are some important things to learn and act on in the seven letters to the churches:
1. The churches are the Holy Spirit’s main theatre of operation.
The image of seven lampstands is a subtle variation on the seven-branched lampstand (the Menorah) which stood before God痴 presence in the Jewish temple. The Holy Spirit has already been described as seven spirits before the Father痴 throne (Rev 1:4) so the Holy Spirit is the fiery flame which burns in the seven lampstands.
In other words, each church is meant to be a place where the Holy Spirit is present and active. Indeed, the purpose of the churches is that they are places where the work of God is to be revealed.
It is therefore crucial that the churches light up the world by proclaiming the true 鍍estimony of Jesusand living as evidence of the work of God, the Spirit, in the earth.
2. Each congregation is a complete church.
Jesus does not write to seven local branches of the church. He is dealing with seven churches (1:20). The tendency towards centralised denominations (each one called a "church") is different to God's view. The emphasis in the Bible is on each assembly governing itself and answering to Christ for its actions. This is often called "the autonomy of the local church" but this is not a happy expression. No church stands entirely on its own. It is better to call it "the direct rule of Christ over the local church" or "the direct responsibility of each church to Christ". Sadly, it is possible for a congregation to close its ears and even its doors to Him! (3:20)
3. We share responsibility for the church.
Don't be too individualistic in your faith. See how Christ holds each of us responsible for the condition of our congregation. "He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches". The government, purity, doctrine, and above all LOVE of the church is the responsibility of us all. We cannot leave things to the elders or the deacons alone.
4. There are three things Jesus cares about with a clear order of priority:
a: LOVE TO GOD. The Ephesian church is doing everything right. These hard-working, persevering christians were witnessing to the truth, avoiding sins and countering error. What more could God ask of them? But Jesus threatens to close the church down (2:5). What could be wrong? They have lost their first love and are in danger of becoming worthless as a result.
Christian performance without this love is worth precisely nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3). This love toward God (which includes and produces love to our neighbour) is the only thing that counts (Galatians 5:6). When this love is absent the salt has become tasteless to God and is fit to be thrown away (Mark 9:50). Not only Ephesus but Sardis and Laodicea also have fallen in this terrible way - three out of seven! Pray that we should not fail in the one thing that matters most. How is your love to God?
b: RIGHT LIVING. We forget that Jesus is capable of pure hatred! What he hates the most is evil-doing in the church (2:6, 2:22/23). We don't know what the Nicolaitan sins were but sexual immorality and religious compromise (eating idol sacrifices) are singled out as two particularly hateful things. Notice that these are sins of action which privately and publicly deny the gospel.
God cares how we behave. Christ died to set us free from sin so we must not wallow in it now. How careless we can be about what we do. These christians felt O.K. about what they did, or perhaps they had a few pangs of guilt, and all the time Christ was hating their deeds. Could He be hating anything in your life?
c. TRUE DOCTRINE. Truth and holiness go together just as heresy and sinfulness lead to each other (2:14, 2:20, compare 2:6 with 2:15). It is not just bigots and theology nuts who care about what is taught in the church. Jesus cares and so should we. The light of the gospel will be dimmed if we do not constantly proclaim and teach it.
We have to take care to study and understand the whole of God's Word and act against any who officially or unofficially teach contradictory dogma. A lazy and casual attitude to truth characterised Pergamum, Thyatira and, possibly, Laodicea. It is a sad feature of many of us today.
Later in this chapter we will look at Christ's warnings and promises and see what these chapters reveal about him. There are themes and patterns in the seven letters which will crop up again and again and we would make a huge mistake if we hurried past them into the heart of the book when many of the main lessons are taught plainly in the beginning. These same lessons are taught figuratively in latter chapters. Why not read one letter per day in a week? "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."
The many-sided Christ
Christ begins each letter with a different description of Himself because each church needs reminding of Him in a fresh and particular way:
The Ephesians need again to see Him as both the sustainer and the purpose of the church. The church exists by His grace and for His worship. It is not enough to do reasonably well and be generally right.
The Smyrnans need to see Him as the Resurrection and the Life, the eternal Lord, as they endure persecution and weakness with patience.
The Pergamese need to see Him as the speaker of Truth which cuts, divides and lays bare our sins and illusions. Then they will not tolerate evil through a misguided charity.
The Thyatirans need to see Him as the Holy Judge whose burning eyes detect sin and whose mighty feet will trample the wicked so that they dare not condone evil teaching and practice.
In Sardis they need to know that Christ alone holds the Holy Spirit as His possession. They think of themselves as a lively spirit-filled church but His assessment is that they are near to death. He is the one man who is rich in Spirit.
In Philadelphia they need the encouraging sight of Jesus as the steward of God's Kingdom, powerful and willing to help them in their weakness. He holds open the door of heaven and he assures them that they are the true children of Jerusalem.
The Laodiceans, wishy-washy in faith and smugly comfortable in the good things of creation need to see Jesus as the only reliable source of truth for life and as rightful ruler over them and all their property.
Christ's will for the church
The churches which looked from outside to be the most blessed by God were Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea! How we need to learn Christ's way of seeing things. How we need to learn Christ better.
All these congregations thought they knew Christ but in fact they had so much more to learn about Him. He cares passionately about the state of the churches and looks for COMPLETE faith and obedience. Most churches major on just one or two areas, e.g. social activity, loving relationships, evangelism, clear teaching etc. but fail to be ruled by ALL of Christ's words. In particular, He expects the church as a whole (not just the Elders notice!) to exercise discipline if teachers of error or evil practices have entered the church.
The wealth of Christ's promises
Jesus speaks to churches but rewards individuals. At the end we will stand alone before God. For those who overcome it will be a day of special blessing tailored to our need. The varied promises are sources of hope designed to help us resist particular temptations.
To the Ephesians the promise is Eternal Life. If we overcome the temptation within us to merely conform and substitute church activity for walking with God then we shall certainly enter into the Life to come. Even though the church may fold around us the lovers of Christ have a RIGHT to eat of the tree of life which is waiting in God's garden.
To Smyrnans - about to suffer to the point of death - Jesus promises that that will be the end of their shame and suffering. Not only will they not suffer the second death but it will not be able to hurt them at all. Instead they will wear the crown of life and receive glory in exchange for shame. Even in this life we will suffer no more than God allows - the "ten days" of 2:10.
To Pergamum - where new teaching is penetrating and offering "enlightenment" along with illicit food Christ offers real enlightenment and real spiritual food. The white stone with a secret name seems to be a token of assurance signifying a special, secret relationship with the Lord. Part of that relationship is the right to feed now on Christ, the bread of heaven.
To the faithful at Thyatira, being shouted down by bold heretics, Jesus gives the faith-building confidence that they will rule with Him. The morning star - ruler of the dawn sky and herald of the day - will be given them. Even when the church's leadership has fallen Christ expects the faithful to just hold on without sinning (2:24). The day will come when the truly righteous will rule.
It is hard to avoid complacency when all men speak well of us - we naturally assume that God has the same high opinion! - but self-righteousness is a soiled robe and every work it inspires is inadequate to please God (3:2). To the few believers at Sardis who are not satisfied with the praise of men He promises the white robe of righteousness, the praise of God and the applause of the angels.
To the faithful little church at Philadelphia it is all promises: Christ will make their Jewish opponents admit that they were right after all, he will save them from the next wave of tribulation, He will take their weakness and turn them into a mighty pillar, He will claim them and give them the name of God and the freedom and keys of Jerusalem the Golden.
To any at Laodicea who will throw off half-hearted religion and slavery to pleasure Jesus offers Fellowship in the Spirit now and a share in His rule in the future. Christ offers His example as the faithful witness who overcame the world by speaking the truth and suffering for it and He promises the same glorious consequences (3:21).
When we add these promises together we see the wealth of salvation which Jesus has won for us. But we should be careful about claiming them. They are not for every church member, they are for those who overcome and successfully resist the temptations around them. Are you overcoming? Do you believe these promises?
It is a mistake to see these offers as a simple payment for our obedience. The benefits outweigh the demands by an infinite degree. The promises are declared to everyone to be believed. Those who mix them with faith will live by them and so will overcome sin. The promises are also absolute - you either receive them or you don't - because God will finally judge whether we are either believers or not.