Revelation 2-3. Jesus’ assessment of how well each of the churches is following him. Latent is also an outline of Church history up to the present day.
One approach to understanding the letters to the seven churches is to see each church as encapsulating a particular age in Church history. The first to suggest this was Watchman Nee, in his book The Orthodoxy of the Church, in 1945. He argued that the community at Ephesus represented the earliest Church, Smyrna the Church up to the time of Constantine, Pergamon the Church up to the 7th century, Thyatira the Roman Catholic Church, Sardis the Protestant Church, Philadelphia the Brethren in the 18th and 19th centuries and Laodicea what the Brethren degenerated into. Unfortunately, the scheme is marred by bogus etymological interpretations of the place names and disquisitions going far beyond what the text can justify. The general approach, however, is accepted.
The letters also have a contemporary relevance, whatever period one is living in. The main purpose is to remind us that Christ is very zealous for the spiritual health of the bride he will marry, and he knows her inside out, better than we know ourselves. Though it might seem odd to adopt the term, the messages are essentially performances appraisals. Five of the seven churches are found wanting. In whole or in part they are told to repent (2:5, 2:16, 2:21f, 3:3, 3:19), for the world refuses to repent (9:20, 16:9). Judgement begins with the house of God (I Pet 4:17). If we take to heart what he says to the congregations, we will not be put to shame.
By etymology, aggelos, ‘angel’, means ‘messenger’, just as aggelia means ‘message’ and euaggelion, the ‘good message’ or ‘gospel’; ‘you’ is singular. The angels are the churches’ spiritual messengers, tasked with ensuring that what is written reaches the heart. In addressing the angel, Jesus thereby addresses the church. Each church has a common life; it is not a group of mere individuals. The Lord first addresses the community as a whole, then closes with an exhortation to each member. Each is to listen to what the Spirit (the seven spirits of God) says to all the churches, not just his own, and understand its relevance to his own spiritual life.
Jesus walks among the lampstands as he once did among the trees in the garden (LXX paradeisos) of Eden, and as he walked in the midst of the Israelites (Deut 23:14). Nothing is hidden from him. The Ephesians are commended for their discernment, their perseverance, and their faithfulness in the face of persecution – all important qualities. In his farewell speech Paul warned that fierce wolves would come and seek to distort his teaching (Acts 20:29f). It seems they took the warning to heart and saw through these ‘false apostles’.
Nonetheless, the church is in decline, for they do not love him as they once did. ‘Love’ here is agape. Whether or not it has an emotional element, it is primarily evinced in deeds (works). ‘If anyone has the world’s wherewithal and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Children, let us not love in word, with the tongue, but in deed and in truth’ (I John 3:18). Jesus counsels them to remember the love they had when Paul founded the community. They were once excited, grateful, full of zeal; now the new life seems stale, though they continue to behave commendably. The love that is lacking is love of God, of himself. That John’s own church should be criticised in this respect is shocking, for he had repeatedly stressed the primacy of the commandment to love God. Did this teaching itself now seem stale? Without such agape (praying, meditating on the word, listening for his voice, seeking his will, rejoicing in him) love of one’s neighbour does not have the same force. If the church does not glorify him, Jesus will bring it to an end.
Although we know almost nothing about the Nicolaitans, the name means a follower of Nicolaos (one tradition identifies him as the Nicolas of Acts 6:5). From the letter to the church at Pergamom we learn that the sect considered it permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols and to fornicate with cult prostitutes.
The verb ‘conquer’, nikaein, always used in a spiritual sense when applied to believers, could alternatively be translated ‘overcome’. It expects an object, but none is given (not until 12:11). Each must listen to the Spirit to find out what his particular enemy is. Commonly it will be the flesh, the opinion of others, and the Devil (not discounting other forms of adversity). The promise is conditional, but whatever the enemy, we overcome through faith in the one who went before us. ‘This is the victory (nike) that has overcome the world: our faith’ (I John 5:4). Whoever conquers will be granted the right to eat of the fruit that was denied to the first human couple. He will enjoy life with God forever.
The city’s name derives from smurna, meaning myrrh, which was its main export. Among other uses, myrrh was an aromatic resin used for embalming (John 19:39). The magi’s gift of myrrh after Christ’s birth presaged his martyrdom.
Jesus says nothing against the community here. It is doing good work, despite the tribulation (which John too was experiencing), and its material poverty, and the opposition from Jews in the city. For a little while the persecution is going to intensify. Some will be thrown into prison; some may die. But if they remain faithful and do not deny their Master, they will come out the other side with the prize of eternal life (just as victors at the games were crowned with a laurel wreath, II Tim 2:5, 4:8). They will not suffer the ‘second death’ that awaits people who have no faith and whose lives are found wanting (Rev 20:11ff).
About sixty years later several of Smyrna’s Christians were martyred, famously its 86-year-old bishop, Polycarp. He had been a disciple of John’s and, as a bishop, a vigorous opponent of the philosopher Marcion, who maintained that the God of the Old Testament was an altogether different deity from the loving God represented by Jesus– a view that is again popular. In AD 155, in the space of a few days, twelve Christians were executed for refusing to call Caesar ‘Lord’ (not that different an issue from being forced to confess England’s King or Rome’s Pope as head of the Church). Polycarp was the last. The account of his martyrdom indicates that Jews were among the crowd demanding blood.
One of the oldest references to the Book of Revelation comes from Irenaeus, who wrote in his book Against Heresies that the vision was received ‘almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign’. Irenaeus had been taught by Polycarp, and Polycarp by John, so the statement is on good authority. The vision cannot have been much earlier, since the churches of Smyrna and Thyatira did not exist when Paul was active in Asia (before AD 62).
‘Satan’s throne’ must be the Altar of Zeus, now in Berlin. Zeus was the head of the Greek pantheon and the chief god of Pergamon, and members of the community were expected to offer him sacrifice. While today we can admire the architecture and the sculpture, in John’s time the altar was where citizens unknowingly worshipped Satan. Christians have resisted the pressure. However, some have been persuaded that participation in the rites of pagan worship is not incompatible with their faith.
Balak was king of Moab at the time that the Israelites were preparing to cross the Jordan. He asked Balaam, a well-known mystic, to curse Israel, but the angel of Yahweh stood in his way, brandishing a sword. Balaam found he could only bless them. Later he advised Balak he could weaken Israel another way, by getting them to participate in sacrifices to Baal and fornicate with Moabite women (Num 25:1-5, 31:16). Those who did so provoked God’s anger and God had them put to death. Jesus indicates that he looks on such practices in the same light. The issue had cropped up before, in relation to whether Gentile believers had to follow the law of Moses. The apostles decided that they did not; however, they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood products, from animals that had been strangled, and from fornication (Acts 15:29). Some were now doing just what the apostles had instructed them not to do, and teaching the very things Peter had prophesied against (II Pet 2). Therefore everyone in the congregation should repent. If it does not, Jesus will ‘war’ with the offenders with his sword (rhomphaia). Similar language near the end of the book (19:11-15) indicates that he will strike them down physically, not merely admonish them. On past occasions, behaviour offensive to the Holy Spirit provoked disease, blindness, even death (Acts 5:1-10, 13:8-11, I Cor 11:30).
The Church has always had to battle the temptation to adulterate ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3), in the hope of winning acceptance and disarming opposition. Antipas is unattested, but evidently he died upholding the truth – a ‘faithful witness’ of Jesus even as Jesus was a faithful witness of God (1:5). From Emperor Constantine onwards the temptation took on a different guise. Persecution came to an end and the Church began to occupy a privileged position in society. This was a good thing in the main. Gladiatorial games and crucifixion were abolished, Sunday became a day of rest, polytheistic worship was discouraged. Then in 380 the State adopted Christianity as the official religion. A State religion there had to be: it would be anachronistic to suppose that institutional polytheism could have withered and Christianity remained a network of local churches. So a professional class of priests was set apart to stand between the laity and God, and the Bishop of Rome replaced the Emperor as the Empire’s Chief Priest, the Pontifex Maximus. Peter’s teaching (I Pet 2:9) that all believers were priests, serving God and making him known, was given up.
In the State’s eyes, the main function of religion was to maintain the pax deorum, the goodwill of heaven that ensured peace. Thus understood, Christianity proved of no avail. In 410 Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and again in 455 by the Vandals. The western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated. But the Church survived. Although the Visigoths and the Vandals tore up the Empire’s borders, they already confessed the Christian faith, and in that respect there was no change. In due course it would be the Church that gave rulers their legitimacy. The eastern part of the Empire remained intact.
He who conquers is promised participation in a mystery greater than that of the cult: not food offered to idols but the bread of life, and a token granting admission into the temple of the one true God. A jar within the ark of the covenant kept a quantity of the manna that sustained Israel in the wilderness (Ex 16:33, Heb 9:4). The promise of a new name alludes to the promise God gives Jerusalem in her desolation (Isa 62:2, 4).
‘Inward parts’ translates nephrous kai kardias, literally ‘kidneys and hearts,’ reflecting the belief that these were at the core of a person’s moral being (nous is the word for ‘mind’). “I, Yahweh, search the heart and test the kidneys, to give to each man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jer 17:10). As with every letter, Jesus mentions deeds first among the things he knows about the church, for they are the fruit by which he judges. In this respect the church is improving, and overall the message is positive. He does not question its love, its faith, or its steadfastness. The only criticism concerns the issue faced by the church at Pergamon: the pull of the flesh.
Jezebel was a daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon (I Ki 16:32) and exemplified what happened when Israelite men married foreign women. Jezebel married Ahab, king of Israel. A sorceress and fornicatrix (II Ki 9:22), she induced him to build a house for Baal, the supreme god of the Canaanites, and to place in it a wooden pillar symbolising the tree of life, to which the worship of Asherah, Baal’s consort, was thought to give access. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah ate at the royal table. The cult was demonic (hence the ability to prophesy), and entailed an understanding of God as a sexual being and corresponding practices (idol worship, fornication with cult prostitutes, child sacrifice) that were an abomination. The cult was so popular that only seven thousand of Ahab’s subjects did not bow the knee to Baal. Thus Ahab did more to provoke God’s anger than all the kings before him. Yet in the end he repented, and God accepted his repentance. Jezebel did not.
Old Testament history is repeating itself. Calling herself a prophetess, the new Jezebel claims to be a conduit for words and insights that come direct from God. The church has been warned about her promiscuity before but has failed to rebuke her, so Jesus warns that he will take action himself, as at Pergamon. Retribution will be so clear that ‘all the churches’ will hear of it.
While judgement is no longer swift, no one should think that there will not be a final reckoning. He is coming, and when he does, he will repay each person according to what he has done (Matt 16:27 Rev 22:12). ‘Each one’s work will become manifest’ (I Cor 3:13). This is a vital part of Christian doctrine. Having wiped the slate clean, he expects us to be zealous to do good (Titus 2:14). He even treats good deeds as if they created a debt on his part. ‘So we aspire, whether we are at home or away from home, to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive his due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil’ (II Cor 5:10). Church leaders especially are reminded to live up to their calling (Luke 12:42-48).
The last four letters, beginning with Thyatira, vary the epilogue by putting the promise of reward before, rather than after, the admonition to hear what the Spirit is saying, and there are now explicit references to the Lord’s return. The ‘star of the morning’ recalls Peter’s words that the writings of the prophets are like a lamp shining in a dingy place. Eventually, day will dawn and the true light-bringer (metaphorically, the planet Venus) will rise in our hearts.
The exhortation to “hold fast what you have until I come” suggests that the church will continue to the end. In this context, fornication and adultery have a chiefly spiritual sense. If the churches at Thyatira and Pergamon seem very similar, the difference is that the Moabites tempted Israel from without, in order to weaken her; Jezebel tempted Israel from within. She used religion to strengthen spiritual and political power. In the course of the Middle Ages the Roman Church did much the same, maintaining that kings were subject to her supreme authority and that the Pope ruled as Christ’s vicar, his king-making representative. Kings themselves had their own interests to look after. In 1305 a French king ensured that a French Pope was elected well disposed towards France. He transferred the papal court to Poitiers, then four years later to Avignon. It continued there until 1377, when Pope Gregory XI brought it back to Rome. The following year he died and the crisis only worsened. From then until 1417 there were at least two claimants to the throne, one based in Rome, the other in Avignon. Discredited by its venality as well as its lust for power, the Church was sick.
The threatened chastisement (thanatos, death, but here pestilence, as in 6:8) refers to the Black Death, the most catastrophic pandemic in human history. More than 75 million people died. Clergymen were hit worst because of their contact with the sick and dying. While one hesitates to attribute so indiscriminate a plague to the hand of God, the magnitude of it cannot but prompt the question. This was something more than the tower of Siloam.
Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire – the former Roman Empire to the east – was being eaten away by the might of Islam. Following the battle of Manzikert in 1071, most of Anatolia fell to the Seljuks. In the 13th century Mongolian emirates took control, followed in the 14th by the Ottomans. Muslims have ruled the peninsula ever since. Byzantium itself fell to Islam in 1453.
That Jesus should call God “my God” is unsettling if one supposes that he was somehow coeternal with his father, but it is characteristic of the Messiah (Ps 18, 22:10, 40:8, 89:26, Isa 49:4f, Mic 5:4). On the cross he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” After the resurrection he told his disciples, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The psalm has him say, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise” (Heb 2:12). Ultimately we will all be children of the Father (Heb 2:11).
White garments betoken holiness. Garments clothe our nakedness (Gen 3:21) because we all have a knowledge of good and evil, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:8); ‘with my flesh I serve the law of sin’ (Rom 7:25). Covering our sin, they are a provision of God (Gen 3:21) and, figuratively speaking, they need to be kept clean. In the life to come we will be ‘further clothed’, not naked (II Cor 5:1-4). Resurrection to eternal life is implicit in the sacrificial system that God instituted when he made for the first human beings clothes of skins (Gen 4:4). The ‘book [or scroll] of life’ contains the names of those appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48, Rev 13:8), but their names can be erased (Ex 32:33, Ps 69:28, Heb 6:4-6, 2 Pet 2:20f), as witness the parable about the ten maidens. Again, belief in a resurrection is implicit in the Old Testament passages.
It is not difficult to see the Protestant churches in the indictment of being only reputedly alive. The Reformation went only so far. Its deeds were inadequate, and Luther, for one, struggled to understand how deeds might be inseparable from faith, being the fruit of repentance. Despite emphasising justification by faith, he believed that faith sufficient for salvation was latent even in infants. Infants were to be baptised on the grounds that baptism was equivalent to circumcision (of the foreskin, not the heart), a mark of inclusion in God’s covenant. They were baptised because their parents were in that covenant, parents who had themselves been baptised as infants. Replacing the supranational Roman Church, the Reformed churches were State churches, and for a long time hostile to those who believed in adult baptism; some Anabaptists, as they were called, were even executed. Christianity was a matter of social identity rather than faith, though faith might follow. In Britain Puritanism from the mid 16th century onwards was a response to the perception that much remained unreformed. Parliament did what it could to suppress it. Its Act of Uniformity of 1662 resulted in the ejection of around two thousand non-conformist ministers from the Church. By the end of the 17th century Puritanism had lost its power; in many places Christianity was effectively dead. In Europe, Pietism, a small movement influential in the later 17th century and 18th century, also took the Reformation a step further.
Revelation is about the coming of the kingdom of God. The Church’s own understanding of this is reflected in its relationship with the State, which for most of its history the Church saw as God’s instrument for establishing his kingdom. The relationship went through five phases:
|Early post-apostolic Church||Separate from, sometimes persecuted by, the State|
|Emperor Constantine (313) onwards||Christianity becomes imperial the State religion|
|Donation of Pepin (756) onwards||Roman Church becomes a supranational State in its own right|
|Reformation (16th century)||In some countries the Church becomes a State church|
|Growth of free churches||Some congregations break away from State affiliation (mostly in the UK and USA, later South America and China)|
Whatever the outward forms of rule, God exercises his kingship primarily in the heart of the believer. But time does not stand still. As the world turns away, the Church becomes forced to choose whether to please the world or stick to the faith once delivered so as to please God. It is difficult for the pastor of a State church say, “Jesus Christ will destroy all the kingdoms of the earth.” At the end of the age, God says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you participate in her sins and her plagues become yours.” The kingdom belongs to those who hear this call, who do separate themselves from the world.
‘Philadelphia’ means brotherly love. The preamble refers to when God told the self-serving steward of the house of David that he would replace him (Isa 22:22): Eliakim would take over the key of David and go in and out as he pleased. Jesus signifies that, in a much greater sense, he now has charge of the royal house, and will use his power to open doors. Some of the Jews – followers of Satan rather than real Jews (Rom 2:28f) – have been opposing their witness, but sooner or later they will have to abase themselves before them. As with the church at Smyrna, Jesus has no word of criticism. This is the only church after the general greeting to hear that he has loved them (in the agape sense). Knowing what they have gone through, he will keep them from the tribulation described later in the book. But they should not rest on their laurels: the crown of life will be theirs only if they remain steadfast; it is still possible to lose the prize.
The ‘temple of my God’ is his invisible dwelling-place in heaven. Whoever remains faithful will be part of that habitation (Isa 56:5); he will know God intimately, and Jesus intimately. God and man together, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven, and he will be amongst its citizens.
An open door suggests an opportunity to share the message about the kingdom with those who will listen (I Cor 16:9, II Cor 2:12, Col 4:3). ‘Little power’ suggests little political power. Here again we may discern a historical parallel. Spanish and Portuguese Catholic missionaries had been working in South America from as early as the 16th century. In the 18th century the Moravians also sent missionaries far beyond Europe. Amongst those who came into contact with them were John and Charles Wesley, who, along with George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, travelled in Britain and North America far and wide to bring the gospel to millions who had never heard it, despite attending church every week. Undeterred by violent mobs, they asked, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from your sins?” Many repented and heeded the call to aspire after holiness and goodness. Like the Jews in the city, clergy in the established Church opposed them; few welcomed the converts into their congregations. Later some changed their minds and saw the Evangelical Revival as inspired by God.
In terms of ‘works’, the effect on society was enormous: dramatic falls in murder, gambling, prostitution and alcoholism, the founding of schools, hospitals and orphanages, reform of the prison system, the abolition of slavery. (chiefly of negroes). Because of the Revival, political ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity included more of a Christian understanding than they did on the continent, and there was less inclination to attribute the success of western civilisation to race (e.g. the Aryan race). The revolution continued into the 19th and 20th centuries as the gospel went out into Asia and South America. Huge efforts were made to translate the Bible into native languages. Perhaps the greatest pioneer was William Carey. Noting that ‘multitudes sit at ease and give themselves no concern about the far greater part of their fellow sinners, who to this day, are lost in ignorance and idolatry’, in 1792 he founded the Baptist Missionary Society and emigrated the following year to India. There he translated the New Testament into Bengali and other languages and helped to outlaw infanticide and the immolation of widows. Other missionary societies sprang up. Men and women of extraordinary faith but little power took the gospel to far-flung lands, at great personal cost. Carey himself did not see anyone converted for seven years. He lived in penury, contracted malaria, his five-year-old son died of dysentery, his grief-stricken wife became mentally ill, his printing presses were destroyed by fire. Of such people it might well be said that the world was not worthy.
Philadelphia is the only church to be reminded that Jesus is coming soon, and it is by way of comfort. The reminder makes most sense in the context of a period not far from the present.
‘Amen’ is a Hebrew word. Christ is the Amen, the fulfilment of God’s promises (II Cor 1:19f) and the end of the Book of Revelation. He is ‘a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act according to all his word’ (Jer 42:5). He is the beginning (same word as in John 1:1 and Mark 13:19) of all creation, a truth the Laodiceans particularly need to comprehend (Col 1:15-18, 2:1, 4:16). In sum, he is the Omega and the Alpha.
Laodicea was founded in the mid 3rd century BC by Antiochus II of Syria and named after his wife, Laodice. It got its wealth from banking and from black garments which it made from a prized black wool – hence the references to money and clothing. It also had a medical centre in which blindness was treated with an eye-salve. Water was supplied by an aqueduct. Warmed under the sun, the water was neither refreshingly cool, like that at Colossae, nor pleasantly hot, like the springs at nearby Hierapolis (Col 4:13).
Material wealth had deceived the fellowship into thinking that they were also spiritually rich. That was not the case. Of treasure in heaven – and no other treasure will outlast our bodies – the Laodiceans had nothing. Forty years previously Paul had impressed on them the importance of ‘putting on’ Christ (Col 3:10), but they no longer knew him. Unlike Adam and Eve when they sinned, they did not even know they were naked. They needed to hear his voice, open their hearts and allow him in. Without him their deeds amounted to nothing. Unless they bought from him treasure, atonement and sight-giving ointment (to speak their language, for of course such things cannot be bought), they could not be considered Christians at all.
The same complacency will be encountered in the woman who symbolises civilisation at the end of the age. She is dressed in expensive cloths, beautified with eye-paint and adorned with gold and jewels. She says, “I sit like a queen; mourning I shall never see,” but before long she will find herself naked and desolate. The western Church resembles the world around her. The Church of England is a typical example: an institution wedded to the State (in contrast to the Catholic Church, which is itself a State), still hierarchical, still ritualistic (where it does not substitute formality for the banal), still concerned, when a choice must be made, to please man rather than God. As prophesied of society in the last days, it ‘has the form of piety, but denies the power of it’ (II Tim 3:5). The non-State churches also languish.
To assert that denial of one’s own blindness is evidence of blindness may seem a circular argument. How can one argue against it? But it may still be true (John 9:40f). The Council of Laodicea, representing the churches of Asia in AD 364, accepted the canonicity of all the books in the New Testament except Revelation. Today all the churches accept it, but reject most of what it teaches, just as they reject the faithful and true testimony of the prophets concerning the beginning of creation. That beginning is a person, not a ‘Big Bang’, just as the end is a person. The beginning and the end hang together (II Pet 3:4).
‘Gold refined in the fire’ is faith purified by tribulation (Job 23:10, Isa 48:10), until it redounds to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ (I Pet 1:7). The purpose of the coming tribulation, in part, is to purify his people. Those whom he loves (philω, expressing affection), he rebukes and disciplines, just as Yahweh did under the old covenant (Prov 3:12). He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness (Heb 12:10). We should treasure such love.
The Church is intended to preserve society from its natural tendency to rot. Her role is to speak prophetic- ally about the judgement and salvation of God, to promote the good and oppose what is evil, to set an example of peace, kindness and obedience. If she loses her saltiness, she is no longer fit for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under men’s feet. She becomes like Jeremiah’s loincloth, rotting in the river of the nations (Jer 13:1-11), and God withholds destruction no longer. That is why faithless Laodicea is the last of the seven churches.
Yet he keeps back his most astonishing promise until this point: he who conquers will reign not merely as his subordinate but alongside him, just as he reigns alongside his father.