Go back and read Revelation 2: The Beloved Church – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira.
The Church in Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6)
Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die…
Sardis was located about thirty miles south of Thyatira. In 6 BC, it was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world, marked by times of commercial and military notoriety. Three main landmarks were prominent. First was the temple of Artemis. Second was the Acropolis, which rose eight hundred feet above the north section of Sardis. Third was the Necropolis, or cemetery of a thousand hills, which consisted of burial mounds that could be seen on the skyline from a distance of seven miles.
King Croesus lived in Sardis with all his pomp and wealth. Through negligence and lack of vigilance, however, Sardis was attacked and defeated several times. An earthquake also devastated the city in AD 17, and only through the generosity of Tiberius Caesar was the city able to recover and become a successful center for the wool and dye industry. As a city it had been known for luxury and laxity and came to represent the peace of the man whose dreams are dead and whose mind is asleep; the peace of lethargy and evasion.
No other church incurs a more severe rebuke from Jesus than Sardis. Here is an example of a bride in name only. Her reputation was without reality, her creed without Christ, her religion without relationship. The church in Sardis became a perfect model of inoffensive Christianity, the first example of nominal Christianity in the New Testament. We imagine how Christ’s heart breaks when he thinks of this church, for they are his Bride in name only, and he calls them to Life, to reality.
The One “who holds the seven spirits” confronts this deadness. The Bride of Jesus is not to be a lifeless mannequin in the window of the religious marketplace or a fading image in the scrapbook of ecclesiastical memory. We are called to life in the Spirit, which is generated and sustained by Jesus himself. Is it possible for entire congregations to be in church but not in Christ? Jesus’ very sobering words seem to answer in the affirmative:
…I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.
But how does a church fall into such a lamentable condition? Do you think this rebuke was addressed primarily to individual Christians who simply needed to be revived? Or is it possible that religious and social enculturation can be so strong and deceptive that large groups of professing Christians can go through the motions of religious life and neither understand the Gospel nor experience its saving power?
Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that many will come on the day of judgment assuming membership in His Kingdom based on participation in spiritual activity or even supernatural manifestations of God’s Spirit. But he will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me.” (Mat. 7:23)
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy.
Jesus recognized, however, that there were some genuine Christians in Sardis – as there are in most dead churches. These are not examples of those in “the deeper life club” or some type of spiritual elite in the church. Rather, they alone are the Bride. I assumed, like many, that I was a Christian until that very morning I was converted. We dare not equate being in the pews with being in Christ. Would that God keep us from ever confusing mere enthusiasm with real life in the Spirit. Our goal should be not just to ignite religious flesh, something that can easily be done by simply “pushing the right spiritual buttons.” Rather, we should express our longing in terms of becoming a church in which the real presence of the Lord would be known, a fellowship in which men and women could have a genuine encounter with the Living God.
Let us realize the importance of continuing to preach the Gospel within the Church and to never be presumptuous about who is and who is not in Christ. In a culture like ours, there are so many individuals who come to church for years without ever coming to Christ. It should be our joy to see members of churches become members of the Body of Christ.
The Church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13)
I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Philadelphia was situated thirty-five miles southeast of Sardis. It was at the eastern end of a broad valley near the river Cogamis. The city was at the juncture of trade routes leading to Mysia, Lydia and Phrygia, earning for Philadelphia the title Gateway to the East. Her economic prowess was based on agriculture and industry. The historian Strabo called Philadelphia a city full of earthquakes. The great earthquake of AD 17 may have hit Sardis, but it nearly destroyed Philadelphia. By the time of John’s writing, however, the city had been rebuilt. It came to be known as Little Athens, a city flush with temples and teeming with religious festivals.
The church in Philadelphia needed encouragement for their hearts to be strengthened. The people there were placed in a key position to impact their own culture and the nations as well. Jesus wanted to use them for his glory. He reveals himself to the beloved of Philadelphia as the Lord of opportunity. He has the “key of David”, which controls the opening and closing of all doors. What he opens, no one can shut; and what he shuts, no one can open (3:7). In this church we find a thrilling example of strength in weakness. This small and seemingly insignificant body of believers is called to go through a great door of opportunity into a life of substantive impact. What a paradox. But the Gospel is full of such paradoxes. The way to live is to die. The way up is down. We find ourselves by losing ourselves. As Paul wrote, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2Co. 4:7).
As we read Jesus’ words to his bride in Philadelphia, we are both encouraged and rebuked. We are encouraged that he is the One through whom and by whom all ministry is realized. Jesus calls us, gifts us, and empowers us to be involved in his eternal purposes. The great commission, for example, is not a job to get done but rather a reality in which we participate. We need to see the ministry as the overflow of hearts filled with the grace f the Gospel. Jesus uses his people to do things they cannot do in their own power. The church in Philadelphia was to see itself like Gideon’s army, a little people with a big and faithful God.
1 Corinthians 1:27-28
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are
The message also rebukes many of us in the fortress contemporary church. Believers in Philadelphia were placed in a strategic location in a pagan culture. All they had to do was walk through the door of opportunity and ministry. Their calling was not to build “Camp God” and be a community of ingrown navel-gazers merely holding on until the Rapture. Their calling – and ours! – is to be salt and light (Mat 5:13-16). We are not to merely selfishly fill up our calendars with endless fellowship opportunities with those who are also Christians. This is our Father’s world. Non-believers are not our ultimate enemy – Satan is. Why does such a strident us-versus-them dichotomy persist? We are to build bridges, not burn them so we can hide within our “pure” communities.
Ministry can get very messy, exhausting, and painful. Persecution is the predictable consequence of a commitment to witness faithfully. And the persecution that the Christians in Philadelphia experienced did not come from pagans as was usually the case but from hostile Jews. But Jesus makes an awesome promise to those whose ministry is based on following the Lord through any and every door that he opens:
Revelation 3:9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.
The bottom line is that Jesus is the friend of sinners – but are we? We can draw three conclusions from this for our church families:
We can resolve not to become a busy, program-driven church
There are some churches that keep their members so preoccupied with meetings and activities that they have precious little time to have relationships with non-Christians. We need to encourage all our members to be in a relationship with those in our culture who, like us, need the grace of God.
We can extend the welcoming heart of God through all the ministries of our church.
Non-Christians can experience love and acceptance as they begin their spiritual quests in our midst.
We can commit to outgrow our church.
By embracing and keeping a high emphasis on world evangelism, we can step up and out. In so doing, we will guard against becoming an ingrown fellowship that is stagnant and cannot produce.
The Church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22)
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
Laodicea was situated in the Lycus valley near the cities of Hierapolis and Colossae, about forty miles southeast of Philadelphia. Laodicea was considered the chief city of the southern region of Phyrgia. A very wealthy town, it was known for its banking industry and its medical school, which produced Phyrgian powder, a popular eye salve. After being severely devastated by another earthquake, this one occurring in AD 61, the city refused financial assistance from Rome, choosing instead to rebuild from her own treasury.
Ranchers in Laodicea raised a prized species of sheep whose black, glossy wool was in great demand. The city had a major weakness, however. It lacked a convenient source of clean water. The city was planned and built based on the trade routes and ignored the need for such natural resources. So here we have a picture of an immature and spoiled bride who is blind to her own faults. Jesus confronts his beloved with the spiritual self-satisfaction, complacency and indifference that the Bride displays. Jesus’ rebuke to the Laodiceans manifests the depths of his compassion and concern for his people. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”, Proverbs tells us, and this friend is Jesus.
Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
Laodicea is an example of a church – or a Christian – that fails to realize the power that living the good life has over us. It dilutes our wholehearted affection for Jesus, blinding us with fool’s gold. Hear the cry of the lover of our souls as he calls out to us, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). This is not an evangelistic appeal to non-believers. It is Jesus’ appeal to his Bride to realize the tragedy of allowing worldly comforts to replace communion with him. He longs for the rich fellowship of the table, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper we should long for the day when we will eat with him at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:9).
So Who is the Bride Beautiful that Jesus Longs For?
A passionate “first love” relationship with the Lord that spills over into all other relationships
A willingness to suffer for our Bridegroom
A growing knowledge of the truth of the Gospel, and a commitment to defend the faith “once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jud 1:3)
A purity of heart and holiness of lifestyle that is driven by love for God and empowered by grace
An aliveness in Jesus that is generated by his real presence in our midst and hearts
A commitment to follow Jesus into a live of other-centered living through evangelism, missions, and cultural impact
An undivided and abiding allegiance to Jesus which treasures communion with him more than the comforts of the world or anything else
Go back and read Revelation – A New Perspective.
No people is more loved, right now, than the Church of Jesus Christ. Grace abounds to you and me because our Divine Bridegroom has triumphed over sin and death. We are clothed in his righteousness and we are completely forgiven of all our sins – past, present and future. We can do nothing to cause Jesus to love us more than he already does. And we can do nothing to cause him to love us less. Just think of what such a love means.
In Revelation 2 and 3, the resurrected Jesus addresses his bride, the Church, as she exists in Asia Minor. The seven churches were all located within a 90-mile radius of one another, the average distance between them being from 25 to 50 miles. They are listed in the text in the order than a carrier going from John’s home in exile on the Isle of Patmos would deliver them. A circular letter would therefore go first to Ephesus, which was approximately 60 miles across the Aegean Sea and on to the other churches, ending at Laodicea.
The churches numbering seven is no coincidence. It is actually the first of several encounters with this symbolic number that the readers of Revelation will have. We know that there were established churches in at least ten cities in Asia Minor. So why were seven churches chosen from among them? And why these seven? Perhaps it was to give us a composite or full picture of what the bride of Jesus should look like as she “makes herself ready” for the coming of the Bridegroom.
Each of the seven messages from Jesus follows a similar form and pattern in construction:
Jesus addresses each church through her resident angel, either the main leader of the congregation, a presbyter or bishop, or else a spiritual guardian angel of that church.
Jesus is identified in each message by one of the names or images found in John’s first vision (Rev. 1:12-18).
Jesus reveals his intimate knowledge of the church and offers encouragement and commendation, as warranted.
Rebuke and correction come next, as needed. Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Rev. 3:19)
Specific repentance for each congregation is suggested.
A general exhortation and invitation follows; “He who has an ear, let him hear…” (Rev. 3:22)
A reward is promised, indicated by the titles and images that Jesus reveals in the last two chapters of the book.
As we consider each of the seven churches, let us pay special attention to what our Lord commends and laments about them. We will paraphrase the overall message to each particular church in our heading.
As we consider each of the seven churches, let us pay special attention to what our Lord commends and laments about them. We will paraphrase the overall message to each particular church in our heading.
The Church in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7)
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
Ephesus, capital of the Roman capital of Asia, teemed with a population of a quarter of a million citizens. She was a wealthy and cosmopolitan trade city, enhanced by sea ports and the convergence of three main highways. It was also a center of worship for Diana, the Roman bee goddess of fertility, known in Greek as Artemis. The great temple in Ephesus honoring Diana became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
At the time of John’s writing, the church in Ephesus was about 30 years old. Paul had invested three years of his life preaching the gospel and planting churches there. He concluded his great Ephesian epistle with a very meaningful benediction.
Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible.
Unfortunately, this undying love gave way to forsaken love. Here was a church commended for her hard work, perseverance, and defense of the faith in the face of heresy. And yet here is a church that has lost the heart of a bride. She is no longer in love. She is Martha, so busy for Jesus, rather than Mary, who treasured communication with Jesus more than anything else.
The correction that Jesus brings to the Ephesian church, however, is as much a complement as a rebuke. Do we realize what it means for our Lord to be zealous and jealous for our love? What dignity, and what delight! He who loves us with an everlasting love is calling for affection and pronounced love from us, his bride. If only we could covenant to cultivate a Christ-centered worship, one that would enable us to fully express our love and gratitude for our Lord. Our worship services must reflect that we are the well-loved bride of Jesus, a people whose greatest joy is in responding to the affection of our bridegroom. Empty ritual and predictable liturgy will never do. Would that we also commit to work hard expressing the love of Jesus to one another by making forgiveness a predominant theme in our fellowship.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
Most churches are comprised of people who come from previous church experiences. And most of these experiences are characterized more by rules and legalism than by healthy relationships and the gospel. We should desire the fellowship in our church to be indicative of the mercy and compassion that Jesus has for us. This love will be our most powerful form of evangelism in our culture and the clearest proof that we actually know the Lord.
John was well acquainted with Jesus’ emphasis on love. As he received these words for believers in Ephesus, he remembered the time when or Lord restored Peter to the fellowship of the disciples with this threefold question. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Joh 21:15-17) To have witnessed the intensity of Jesus’ compassion as he affirmed the one who denied him must have been one of the greatest expressions of love ever seen. To have heard Jesus’ emphasis on his longing for our affection no doubt made an indelible impression on John as well. And certainly, he recalled our Lord’s summation of the Law and Prophets when he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” (Mat. 22:37-38) John himself was given the privilege of recording for us the new commandment that Jesus gave the disciples on the evening of his betrayal.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Love for our Bridegroom must always be our highest priority, and love for one another will be one of the purest and surest demonstrations of this love. It is also John who reminds us, “We love because he first loved us.” (1Jn 4:19)
The Church in Smyrna (Rev. 2:8-11)
I know your tribulation and your poverty… Do not fear what you are about to suffer.
Smyrna, now Izmir in modern day Turkey, was about 35 miles north of Ephesus. The proud people of this city minted their own coins which bore the phrase, “first in Asia in beauty and size.” Known as a politically correct city, Smyrna had a long history of emperor worship. In 195 BC, the citizens built a temple to Dea Roma, the goddess of Rome. In AD 23, Rome chose this city above ten other cities as the site of a new temple to honor Tiberius Caesar. Later, during Domitian’s reign (AD 81-96), emperor worship became compulsory. Once a year, citizens were required to burn incense on the altar to the godhead of Caesar or face the threat of death.
One can easily imagine that Chritians in Smyrna lived under an immense pressure to conform to this decree. And Rome was not the only source of suffering for the bride. A group of Jews in Smyrna was so hostile to the Christian faith that Jesus refers to them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9) Together, they orchestrated a symphony of evil for Jesus’ beloved: poverty, slander, prison, death. Jesus assures his church that he is in control and that he loves each member of the body. This church’s love for Jesus was refined in the fire of suffering.
As we read the message of Jesus to this church, we note his tenderness, his compassion, and his involved love. To the bride who is suffering, he reveals himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life.” (Rev. 2:8) Our Bridegroom is eternal and he is victorious. We need not fear death, even death by martyrdom. Jesus has come to free those who, all their lives, have been held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
One of the early church’s best known martyrs was Polycarp, a native of Smyrna. He was put to death in AD 156 because of his unwillingness to sacrifice to the emperor. “Eighty and six years have I served him (Jesus),” Polycarp said, “and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” But few of us realize that there have been more martyrs in the 20th century church than the preceding 19 centuries combined.
Our Bridegroom does not discourage or play down the reality of our hurts. He acknowledges both our suffering and reveals himself to be Lord over our pain. He comforts us, saying, “I know your tribulation and your poverty… and the slander…” (Rev. 2:9). He who has been made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10) is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15).
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.
Jesus warns his church that they will suffer. But he tells them how long it will be. We can see that he is the one who is in control of this season of suffering, not the devil. This is a source of deep comfort. Our Bridegroom also knows our limits and the purposes of our suffering. He also promises us that one day we will understand the things that are now the source of great fear, hurt, confusion, and even anger. Every tear will be wiped away and all pain redeemed. Therefore we can learn to say with Paul,”I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18)
How freeing it is to know that pain and faithfulness go hand in hand. Suffering is actually a sign of the depth of our love, not a measure of our lack of faith. We pray that God will enable us to rejoice in our sufferings. We pray that he will help us to see in the sufferings of our Lord not just the payment of our freedom but also the pattern that we should follow for our lifestyle. We can ponder as a family of believers, “what will it mean for us to be so captured by the grace and glory of Christ that we, too, will not love our lives unto death?”
The Church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17)
As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’
Our Lord knows that his sheep love him to the point of death and have been faithful to defend the gospel. We are now called to even greater faithfulness. The church in Pergamum was persecuted for its commitment to one God, and one God alone. Pergamum was full of philosophy and religion and the city could not understand the Christian’s monogamous relationship with the lover of our souls.
From Smyrna, Pergamum was located about 50 miles up the coast and 10 miles inland. It was a city set on a hill, in fact, on top of a 1000-foot hill. Out word “parchment” is derived from this city’s name because this is where it was invented. Pergamum was famous for its 200,000-volume library. The city was also a very religious one, with temples erected and alters dedicated to not one but four major pagan cults. The altar for Zeus was huge and elevated, burning animal sacrifices to the god 24/7. The patron goddess Athena, the god of wine Dionysos, and the savior god of healing Asklepios also has their altars. Pergamum was the official Asian center for the imperial cult, and the first city that built a temple in 29 BC to honor a living emperor, Augustus.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This truth is offensive to a world that champions many ways to many gods. The sharp, double-edged sword of the gospel cuts at the heart of a pluralistic culture that esteems religious tolerance over absolute truth. Antipas, a member of the Pergamumm church, lost his life for the sake of truth.
I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.
If Satan is not successful in destroying the message of the gospel from without, then he will resort to perverting and subverting the gospel from within the church. Jesus rebukes his bride for being inconsistent in her very strength, her love for the truth. From Jesus’ words we see that two strains of false teaching were beginning to infiltrate the church in Pergamum. The Baalamites and the Nicolaitans were compromising with pagan idolatry and immorality. Perhaps they thought that Christians were being a little too narrow-minded and a bit too legalistic, as some do in the church today as well. Unfortunately, the majority were too nonchalant about this minority. Jesus reminds us that we must not tolerate error under the guise of being open-minded and fair. We can be gracious and still be tenacious for truth.
Which Jesus are we talking about when we name his name? Is it the Jesus of the Bible, or of the New Age movement, or of prosperity theology, or of Mormonism, or of political liberation movements? They are not the same Jesus! As a pastor has wisely said, “Live heterodoxy is no answer for dead orthodoxy.” We must not think that the antidote for dead churches full of dry theology is to build live churches full of bad theology, or even no theology. One of the most vital commitments we can make is to know and protect the truth of the gospel.
From our study of Jesus’ rebuke to the church of Pergamum we can formulate the goal of having inflamed hearts based on informed minds. We can affirm early on that no church can afford to be lax about guarding the content of the gospel any more than they can be lax about whom they put into positions of teaching and leadership. We need to want a church that gives evidence to live orthodoxy.
Go figure – George Barna recently presented statistics demonstrating that while 80% of American evangelicals still profess belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, over 50% of them also believe that absolute truth does not exist. Maybe this also resonated in our own culture. Maybe we are in need of a “back to truth” movement so we can have a real “back to the Bible” movement.
The Church in Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29)
2 Corinthians 11:2
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.
Our love for Jesus is demonstrated in many ways. But we must now set our hearts on being his Holy Bride. The One who sees everything, with his eyes of blazing fire (Rev 2:18), looked into the hearts of the church in Thyatira and found much to affirm. This bride made steady progress in her deeds, love, faith, service and perseverance (Rev 2:19). She is quite the picture of health and maturity. What more could Jesus long for?
Thyatira was 45 miles south east of Pergamum on the way to Sardis. Of the seven cities, it was least in political, religious, and cultural importance. The city was mostly known for its trade guilds. There were wool workers, linen workers, makers of outer garments, dyers, leatherworkers, tanners, potters, bakers, slave dealers, and bronze smiths. It was a union town! Lydia, the Apostle Paul’s first convert to Christianity in Macedonia, was from Thyatira, a seller or purple goods. (Acts 16:14)
The trade guilds in Thyatira were so integrated into the religious life of the community that economic and worship practices went hand-in-hand. In order to be licensed to do business in the community, local merchants had to belong to one of the many guilds, each of which was tied to the worship of a particular god. It seems that the economic pressure of buying and selling in an economy in which business was tied to false worship was taking its toll on a part of the church. Many Christians were succumbing to the pressure to compromise their faith in order to provide financially for their families. This economic pressure led to moral compromise. Another deadly source of moral compromise among the believers in Thyatira was a certain Jezebel.
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.
Jezebel, an individual or a group, had infiltrated the church with the power of seduction. It would appear that the theology of the church in Thyatira was being reshaped by this prophetess and church members being led into idolatry. We see her as the early representation of cheap grace. By retooling the gospel to fit the economic and moral climate of the culture, The Christians in Thyatira were led to believe that grace frees us to fit into any society without challenging its values and mores.
In confronting this evil, Jesus calls his bride to a more consistent and consuming holiness. Holiness is one of those concepts that has fallen on hard times in the contemporary church. The word is seen as synonymous with dourness, religious rules, and the interjection, “NO!” But holiness is an attitude of the heart even before it is compliance with a lot of do’s and don’ts. To be holy is simply to be set apart for God’s purposes.
You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
We who have been declared holy through the gospel by justification are being made progressively holy by sanctification, as God conforms us more and more into the image of Jesus. And thanks be to God. He promises to bring to completion the good work he has begun in us. Holiness is also our radical commitment to live out the implications of what it means to be the tenderly loved bride of Jesus. We are to live for the pleasure and praise of Jesus, not that he might accept us, but because we are thankful that he already has, fully and eternally. Any other motivation turns our obedience into legalism and self righteousness.
Naivete and compromise must be rejected. We must guard against being absorbed into our culture for the sake of economic or social benefit. But let us also guard against confusing holiness with moralism, which leads to asceticism, withdrawal, or alienation from our culture. Neither laxity nor legalism is the answer. We are to be in the world and yet not of it. We are to demonstrate to the watching world what it means to be captured by the love of Jesus.
It is easy to fall into a performance-based spirituality, into the ugliness of self righteousness and mere moralism. But it is just as easy to misuse our freedom in Christ, to wrongly assume that God’s grace makes us less responsible to live lives that are pleasing to him. Let us all realize that grace frees us actually and empowers us to obey God. Thus is the beauty of grace.
Revelation 2:25-26, 28
Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations… And I will give him the morning star.
Continue to Revelation chapter 3 – the churches in Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
The book of Revelation has suffered at the hands of its interpreters for so long. And we have suffered from these interpretations. Many treat it as though it were a prophetic jigsaw puzzle that it meant to be solved by the terminal generation of Christians. So it is not relevant for us today. Others say that it is too veiled, too complex, and too culture-bound. So people shy away from it and say that it cannot benefit modern believers. And still others so spiritualize the text that they render it as little more than a book of parables and allegories. So it is taken with a grain of salt, or dismiss it as nothing serious.
We need a new way of looking at Revelation because it has to be relevant to us, to mean something for our lives today. It contains a vital message that is not to be clouded in mystery by our reluctance to approach it or a tendency to read into it. It is, after all, a revelation – the truth of it is revealed, not hidden from us.
So the objective in this study of Revelation is to look at its truths to understand our Christian life today. And to understand all of life from God’s perspective, from this Revelation given by Jesus Christ.
There is a huge difference between the way we customarily think of hope and how the Bible defines the term – God’s gift of hope. Hope to us is usually this vague sense of well-being based on the contingency that certain things will work out. We use it interchangeably with the word wish, revealing that we do not really believe it can happen for us. But hope in the Scriptures is eschatological, concerning the last things. There are incomparable wonders in store for God’s people, real things, sure things. Ans we endure difficult circumstances at present. But these difficulties have no bearing on the future realization of our hope in Christ. The last days, the second coming of Jesus Christ, is referred to in the Bible as our blessed hope. When our Lord returns, all will be made right, no conditions of present circumstances apply. When we give our lives to Jesus, this hope is concrete.
Paul expressed this hope despite the pain he suffered. His pain was not magically taken away by becoming a believer in Christ. But his understanding of hope redefined this suffering. As with Paul, such confidence in the new earth frees Christians in every age and place to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2).
Romans 8:18, 23-24 (ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us… we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
Our present experience of hope is not just tied to our wonderful future as God’s people, but also to what has happened in the past and what is going on in the present. We have a sure hope right now because of what Jesus accomplished upon the cross as the Lamb of God. We have a living hope because of the presently occupied throne of God in Heaven. Indeed, our hope comes from him “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:8). And it is this hope that changes the way we view our present sufferings.
God never intended Revelation to be a source of fear or confusion. It gave rise to Handel’s Messiah, not Mozart’s Requiem. It was written to do nothing less than to bring us this great encouragement and hope. John fell when he saw Jesus, but the Lord told him not to fear (Rev 1:17).
Revelation is not a dark and hidden mystery intended to be decoded by members of an illuminated club. It is a heavenly perspective (given by Jesus) to be seen, embraced and rejoiced in by the hearts of the seven churches (Rev 1:4). This book of overwhelming sights, nearly audible sounds, and rich symbols, is meant to bring eternal encouragement and liberating perspective to every generation of Christians. From the first century church facing oppression from the Roman world, down to us who endure the world in his name, and on to the last century church confronted with the worst of the final days before the coming of Jesus, it is a message of hope. Revelation is not just a guidebook for dealing with the end times. It is a guidebook for every day of our lives.
Who is God?
We set out to interpret life from God’s perspective. So the most important thing for any of us is the image of God that we carry in our hearts. The quality of our lives is determined by the way we think of God. Revelation is also an exhortation, a push for the Church to face the question of who God is to each of us.
Some fifty or more years before John wrote Revelation, Jesus asked him and the rest of the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mat 15:16). This question stands before each of us, Christian or not. Our temptation is to ever reshape Jesus into a more predictable and accommodating deity. More often than not, we want a masseuse, not a Master. We forget that he is the King of Kings (Rev 1:5), the Alpha and the Omega, the Almighty (Rev 1:8).
No other book in the Bible gives us a more inviting and overwhelming picture of Jesus, as he really is, as he wants to be known, than Revelation. As we trace the theme of hope throughout John’s visions, we will see that Jesus himself is the foundation of our abiding hope, the reason we do not ultimately despair. He is the victorious Almighty King, the firstborn and he who will carry us to our final place with him. This very hope filled the heart of John as he wrote what he saw.
Revelation is the most theological book in the New Testament. It delves deep into the nature of God and his will for us. It confirms Jesus’s place at the Father’s side, and as the proper object of Christian worship, while firmly maintaining that God is Sovereign.
The book is the revelation of Jesus Christ in the sense that is came directly from Jesus to John, the beloved disciple.
Revelation 1:1-2 (ESV)
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. (emphasis added)
As the final book of the Bible, Revelation can also be seen as the final word to the Church from God. Jesus Christ is introduced aptly through a description of His entire redemptive ministry – his life in this world, his death and resurrection, and soon taking his rightful place as Lord of all. This theme of his redemptive work runs throughout the book.
Revelation 1:5 (ESV)
… Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth…
The Jewish Perspective
John the Beloved was a Jew before he met Jesus, and his understanding of Jesus was therefore as the expected Messiah, the Anointed One who would come from the line of Israel’s King David. John’s description of Jesus above is actually taken from Psalm 89, which is about God’s covenant with David. He also refers to Jesus in Chapter 5 as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Rev 5:5). Only he can open the seven-sealed scroll.
Jesus is the “firstborn” (Psa 89:27), but the ancient Jewish hope is transformed. Jesus becomes the firstborn from the dead in light of his resurrection. And the Messianic Lion becomes the Lamb slaughtered as the sacrifice for our redemption. Jesus is not always named in the book of Revelation. He is called the Lamb, an image in line with John’s description of him, to remind us of his work. He is also described as an angelic figure who looks like a human being. It is this figure who speaks freely. When he first speaks to John in the Revelation, and when he appears again in Chapter 19, he identifies himself unmistakably as Jesus:
Revelation 1:17-18 (ESV)
… I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
The Messiah is a dying Messiah, but also God. Here the Christian mystery is clearly revealed as never before.
Worthy of Worship
Jesus is “Faithful and True” (Rev 19:11), “The Word of God” (Rev 19:13), “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 19:16). Unlike the other angels in the book, Jesus accepts John’s worship. This is evidence that he is God. The Lamb is also worthy “to receive power…and honor and glory…” (Rev 5:12). And the Lamb being beside God on the throne shows us that the sacrificial Lamb is God himself. The victim is the victor, the Lamb is the Lion.
The Lamb showed God’s amazing love for us with his sacrifice. This love continues on in Revelation. It talks about love as a Christian responsibility that we show through hard work, faithful service, and patient endurance of suffering. It also demands faithfulness to God, even to the point of death (Rev 2:10; 12:11).
Revelation 14:4 (ESV)
…It is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. These have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb
Love is presented in Revelation as a binding commitment between God and the people of God, as in marriage. The bridegroom is the Lamb and the bride is Jerusalem, the people of God, John’s version of the universal church. The marriage relationship between the Lamb and the bride is expressed in the language of God’s ancient covenant with Israel.
Revelation 21:3 (ESV)
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
This is a profound covenant relationship between God and his people. And the implications are mostly negative. God is calling his people to be separated from evil. John hears a voice from heaven say, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Rev 18:4-5). Those who remain in sinful Babylon, who remain of sinful Babylon, are thrown into the lake of fire, which is full of “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, …murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars… (Rev 21:8)
In light of this, we can view Revelation as another long list of things that we are prohibited from doing. But the book can also be viewed as a sneak peek into what will happen to those who think that there are too many rules. We are simply being shown what happens to those who practice sexual immorality and lie (Rev 2:20, 14:5). And we can glean two positives from there. First, sexual purity – as the bride of the Lamb, we should be faithful to him. Second, truthfulness. Remember, Jesus is “Faithful and True”, and we should mirror these virtues as the basis of the covenant marriage.
Preaching the Gospel from the Book of Revelation
A lot of preaching that we hear from this book are fire and brimstone sermons. They use Chapters 1-3 to bully the congregation or Chapters 4-22 to curse society. But the book should be taught as a unity. We need to understand what the seven churches were going through, then understand the message that Jesus had for them and how it speaks to us as a church today.
The greatest danger that the seven churches faced as a whole was complacency. Our churches today face the same danger. We can easily stand at the pulpit and point fingers at the unbelievers, the murderers, and the vile. But when we look deeply, the book points at all of us. We my not consider ourselves to be sorcerers, but the practice of magical arts can extend to being guided by horoscopes or fortunes read through Tarot cards. Sexual immorality is any thought about any person outside of marriage, as Jesus himself taught. We may be idolizing money when we do not give generously and tithe faithfully. We have anger in our hearts against our brethren, we lie and pretend, and commit cowardly acts.
Another thing that we often hear is the preacher’s own thoughts about what is going to happen. But the preacher is not the prophet or the seer to which the Revelation was given. John was tasked with this. And John says there is a blessing for reading the Revelation, not interpreting it.
Revelation 1:3 (ESV)
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (emphasis added)
What we should focus on is what we know from the book. We do not know the circumstances of all that will happen as revealed in Revelation. But we do know that this Revelation is good news, gospel. It is not just the gospel that we learned in Sunday School about Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. It is a gospel of the future, our future with Christ as God’s children when he comes again. And we also know that the book has value for the present. Christ’s death and resurrection to everlasting life as sovereign Lord is important for us today. Revelation is an assurance that the Lord who was raised from the dead is still at work among us.
Chapters 5 and 6 of Revelation we see the troubles on the earth as represented by the seven seals. This is evidence that God and the Lamb are at work breaking the seals and bringing the day of vindication closer. Chapters 12 and 13 show the frantic nature of the devil’s activity on earth. This is evidence that he has already been defeated in Heaven. The triumphant future governs the present because God is already at work bringing this future to completion. We have hope because we know that this future of victory over evil is secure for all his children. Even in the intensity of the enemy’s work, we know that it can only end in the realization of God’s victory.
We should go through the book of Revelation from beginning to end, reading it as a whole, to realize the full impact that is revealed towards the end of the book. Here we find the clearest and most concise statement of this distinctive good news. This is the discourse that we need.
Revelation 21:5-6 (ESV)
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.
This vision is like that of Paul when he wrote of those in Christ being new creations (2 Cor 5:17). It has not yet com to pass for us. We are still in the world, where Satan has his throne (Rev 2:13), but we need to hear exhortation on how to look through the present circumstances to see what John saw from the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (Rev 1:2).
Revelation 21:1-2 (ESV)
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.