This ninth post in our journey through Revelation brings us to the last of the seven letters to the recipients of Revelation, the letter to Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). A recording of this post will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.
John’s Revelation aims to comfort and challenge the church in its uncertain times. This book reveals three great threats against the churches during the last decade of the first century: the intimidation by Rome (“the Beast”), the seduction of sensual living (“Babylon the harlot”), and the deception of false religions (“the False Prophet”) – all agents of Satan (“that Great Dragon”) attempting to snuff out the faith of the church. In Christ’s letter to Laodicea, the lure of sensual living was the greatest threat against the church’s devotion to Christ and their witness of his Kingdom.
Laodicea was situated southeast of Philadelphia, close to major trade routes that connected it to Ephesus, Smyrna and Sardis. It was a wealthy city, renown for its banking industry, wool industry, medical school, boasting an elaborate aqueduct system bringing water four miles from the springs at Denizli.
The church in Laodicea was probably founded by Ephafras (Colossians 4:13; 1:7). It was prominent and privileged to receive correspondence from both the Apostles John and Paul (Revelation 1:11; Colossians 4:16). This church, unlike the other churches in its time, was wealthy and self-sufficient (Revelation 3:17), and is the focal point of Christ’s message to the Laodicean believers.
Revelation of Christ (3:14). Christ reveals himself as “The Amen”, the one who is able to bring to fulfillment the purposes of God. He is “the Faithful and True Witness” – the martyr who witnessed the Kingdom of God with authenticity, to the end, paying the highest price. He is also “the Beginning of God’s new creation” – the initiator and proof of God’s renewed creation. Seen together, Christ’s revelation to Laodicean church calls them to look to him as example in witness and proof of his ability to rightfully usher in the new Reign of God; it comforts them that he will complete what he started and calls for their allegiance to him.
Condemnation (3:15-18). Christ offers no commendation for this congregation. His knowledge of their works reveal that, like the water from their elaborate aqueduct system, their witness is good for nothing – “neither cold (like the springs in Collosi) nor hot (like the springs at Hierapolis)“, inducing vomit. This is often intepreted as a lack of zeal in the church, but the reference here implies that either hot or cold water is consumable, useful; lukewarm water is undrinkable, useless. Christ’s condemnation is that the Laodicean church’s witness was compromised like their water supply – it was neither distinctly Christian nor worldly. Somehow these believers found a loophole to remain in this market economy, avoiding direct Imperial cult worship and appeasing the trade guilds while soothing their conscious (more on this in a previous post). This left the “streams of water gushing” from them luke-warm, unpalatable and therefore unable to satisfy the thirst of its community (refer to John 4:14). Christ also found it to be disgusting.
Christ justifies his accusation: the church in Laodicean boasted in their riches, prosperity and self-sufficiency (3:17) – just like Babylon the great harlot (18:7). In contrast to the church in Smyrna who were materially poor but rich in God’s sight (2:9), Christ reveals the Laodicean church as “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (3:17). Note the irony: this charge is made to a wealthy church in city known for banking, eye medicine, and wool industry. Yet this group of believers were blinded by pride; their focus on material prosperity made them blind to their state spiritual deprivation.
Exhortation and warning (3:18-20). Christ urges this church – who is “wretchedly poor” to buy from him “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” (3:18). This invitation to satisfy one’s needs “without costs” alludes to Isaiah 51:1, a familiar phrase in Revelation (21:6, 22:17). Both “gold refined by fire” and “white garments” invite the comfortable Ladicean believers to embrace persecution which refines faith like fire does gold (1 Peter 1:7) and purifies the believers, leaving their characters spotless (compare 3:4-5; also 7:9, 13-14). Eye salve was something the Laodiceans were famous for, but Christ says “I want to heal your sight, to correct your perspective!”
The exhortation is to “be earnest and repent” (3:19) from their self-sufficiency and in humility turn to Christ as their source – a sober assessment to their pitiful state and honest decision to change their ways. This “rebuke” of Christ is wrapped in the loving concern of a father who sees his child growing complacent to immanent danger (3:19; compare Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6).
As a final appeal Christ urges the church that note that they are gathering without him – he is standing outside the door of their feast. Note that Christ has not abandoned them; he is patiently knocking and calling to be welcomed back into to their fellowship. His invitation is gracious. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (3:20)
Promise (3:21-22). To the one who overcomes the lure of self-sufficiency in riches, Christ offers to share in his eternal reign. “Just as I overcame” is a reference to Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), in particular the temptation of materialism (v9-10).
Bringing it home
The big warning in this text is that material self-sufficiency often lead to spiritual self-sufficiency and ultimately self-serving. Comfort breeds complacency, bringing compromise. The Old Testament affirms this: prosperous Israel grew perverse. And our own lives often reveal how abundance makes the heart grow colder.
It is easy for us in our self-indulging, materialistic age, to sympathize with the Laodicean believers who were tempted to compromise their witness in order to maintain their socio-economic status, high living standards and financial security. It alerts one to the reality of Jesus’ warning “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24)
This letter to Laodicea leads us to examine out hearts and habits regarding our material world. To us as to them Christ calls the church to repent – to forgo our compromise and embrace the testing of our faith and purifying of our character which comes through hardship and persecution.
In a wider context it begs us to answer the question: are we merely maintaining fellowship with the church, or feasting with Christ? Answer the call, invite him in, and join in his feast. The cost might be great but brief, yet the rewards glorious in eternity.
This post, the eighth in a series on Revelation, looks at Christ’s letter to the church in Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13). A recording of this session is available on the Shofar Durbanville YouTube channel as part of the Revelation Series.
During the reign of Domitian, emperor of Rome (AD 90-92), Christians were persecuted for refusing to worship him as “king of kings, lord of lords.” He charged the Roman army and Roman courts to cleanse his realm from any subjects who denied him this glory. Not only the state persecuted disciples of Jesus: the trade guilds of the day refused to do business with people who did not worship their pagan gods, claiming they were the cause for bad karma resulting in natural disasters. In addition, Jews especially hated the Christian “sect” who blasphemed their God by worshiping Jesus as his equal.
This left first century Christians generally poor (unemployable), persecuted by the state, hated by their Greek and Jewish neighbors, and pushed into the corners of society. These social pressures, in a world pursuing sensual pleasure and social power, filled with pagan spiritualism, left believers vulnerable to doubt, desertion and dualism (to believe in Christ and live like the pagans). After all, if indeed Christ is Lord of all, why should they suffer like this? Where was their God? Will he still return to reign?
These were the cries of the apostle John, when imprisoned on Patmos, Christ revealed himself as the One among the Lampstands – as present among his church. This letter to Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13) is the fifth church Christ addresses in the opening section of the Revelation (unveiling) John received.
Philadelphia (“brotherly love”) is situated in the fertile Kuzucay valley between Sardis and Laodicea. The city was built by the Pergamon king Eumenes who named it in honor of his love for his brother Attalus. During the first century the city was renamed often, from Decapolis, to Flavia (in honour of Emperor Vespasian AD 69-79), to Neo-kaisaria. The city was also called “Little Athens” because its many pagan temples and public buildings were set on propagating Greek culture within Asia.
This city was known for its quality of wine, for the color of its “burnt soil” (volcanic ash) and the frequent earth quakes it suffered. These tremors caused many to flee the safety of the city walls, choosing to stay outside the city in fear of the big structures collapsing on them. The size of the pillars that remain today give some indication of the tenacity of the early settlers to build a civilization in this unstable place – and this sets the background for the letter to the church in Philadelphia.
Revelation of Christ (3:7). In this volatile, insecure environment, Christ reveals himself to this congregation as “holy” and “trustworthy (true)” – one without corruption who can be trusted. He furthermore reveals himself as the one “who holds the key of David” who, like Eliakim, the gatekeeper in Isaiah 22:20-23, wields the power of God’s eternal kingdom. Christ has received the right and responsibility to govern the earth in the interest of his father.
Commendation and promise (3:8-12). There is no condemnation or correction for this faithful church – only praises and promises. Note that this church chose to stay in this city – persecuted by its officials, betrayed by its big Jewish community, impoverished by its trade guilds, and terrified by its earthquakes – to witness Christ and his kingdom among them. Therefore Christ, the one who holds the Key of David, promises this faithful church is to “an open door.” This may refer to a favorable season to witness the Gospel among the gentiles (as in Acts 14:27), or simply access into God’s throne room (as in Revelation 4:1), into Christ’s eternal kingdom (thus, assurance of their salvation). Christ probably implied an open door into his realm, but the heart behind the promise is reward and goodwill from the Lord.
Christ commends this church for keeping his “word” (holding on in faith to the Gospel), for “not denying (his) name” (faithful allegiance under persecution) and for “keeping (his) command to patiently endure” (steadfastness). Therefore the Lord will bring the persecuting Jews “who worship at the synagogue of Satan” (compare Revelation 2:9) to bow down in honor of these saints. This is an ironic play on Isaiah 45:14, 49:23 and 60:14 where God promised to vindicate oppressed Israel when their Gentile oppressors bow down to them. This allusion is a reminder to the shamed church in Philadelphia that they are indeed God’s covenant people, and these Jews are Gentiles at heart (unbelievers in God’s chosen Christ).
Because this church has remained faithful under persecution, Jesus promises to keep them “from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world” (3:10). As we will see of the two faithfulness witnesses (11:12) and the woman who bore the child (12:5), this church will be spared from the wrath of Christ that comes to a rebellious world, being “raptured” into God’s eternal kingdom.
In this comforting letter to the church in Philadelphia we see several parallels with Jesus’s prayer for his disciples in John 17. “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word” (v6). “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name–the name you gave me… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by thatname you gave me” (v11-12). “I pray not that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (v15). “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). The italics above indicate similarity with Revelation 3:8-10 “you have kept my word and not denied my name… they willacknowledge that I have loved you… I willkeep you from the hour of trial.” In reminding them of his prayer Christ comforts the church in his love and his grace which abounds towards them in their hardship.
The promise to this church is a dignity and security which they are denied in their world (3:12). Christ promises they will be as “pillar in the temple of my God” – a very strong image of prominence and permanence in ancient Philadelphia. He assures them that they “never again will leave it” as the citizens of this city need to flee the quakes; the eternal city “coming down from heaven” will be stable and be free of fear. Lastly, unlike their earthly city which changes names with every emperor, this city’s name is as unchanging as the Christ who will rule it forever.
Exhortation (3:11). The church is called to “hold” course, to patiently endure and faithfully witness as they do. Christ is “coming soon” and they will be rewarded with the prestigious Olympian wreath of victory (compare 2:10), reserved for those who endure in the race to the end.
Bringing it home
Creation is fallen. The fall of sin scarred society, human identity, and the earth itself. In our day we are as aware of the corruption of both society and creation as the Christians in Philadelphia were. Yet Christ promised them, if they remain faithful to the gospel, to him and the call as witnesses, they will share in his restored creation, his reign. In his kingdom there will be shalom – no division, no disaster, no dread.
Do you long for this restored creation, where the Prince of Peace reigns? Then “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (3:13) and patiently endure, hold on to Christ’s word and faithfully witness his coming reign in this passing age. There is a place prepared for you in the New Jerusalem among the saints through the ages.
This 7th post in our reflective study through Revelation hones in on the letter to Sardis (3:1-6). An video recording is available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel. See the link in the image below.
Revelation, a prophetic letter written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre, was written to seven churches during the harsh reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92) to comfort and challenge them in their struggle against the evil they endured. As is typical with this symbolic genre, Revelation draws much from the Old Testament canon to reveal what is at play in their day. In noting these symbolic references and the historic context, we get a clear understanding of the intended message to the first readers, which in turn breaks open the message of encouragement and exhortation to us in our day.
This is the case with our reading of Christ’s message to the church in Sardis today. Sardis (present day Sartmustafa in western Turkey) was once an impenetrable mountain fortress, a wealthy agricultural and wool-trading city characterized by arrogance associated with religious adherence and learning. Temple ruins and statues to the gods of Dionysus (Roman name Bacchus), Artemis, and Cybele remain as witness to the culture of the day.
During his Persian conquest, Cyrus the Great lie siege to both the impenetrable cities of Sardis (547 BC) and Babylon (539 BC). The night of the Fall of Babylon is described in the Bible by the prophet Daniel. The arrogance of emperor Belshazzar and this great city lead to its fall when, besieged by the Persian army, they continued feasting, trusting in it’s secure walls. That night the Lord wrote in blood on the palace walls “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN…—God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end… you have been weighed on the balances and have not measured up… your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:24-28). Ironically, this siege is known as the Bloodless Battle: Cyrus the Great simply diverted the Euphrates river which flowed through the city and marched his army into the capital. Babylon woke up to a conquered city.
The great Lydian capital Sardis fell in the same way: while the citizens kept their feast, trusting in their ancient, secure walls, a Persian scout noticed how a lookout’s helmet fell and how he retrieved it through a gap in the wall. That night Cyrus lead his army through that gap, surprising the gaurds who were enjoying the feasting inside. And this arrogant security sets the background and tone to Christ’s letter to the church in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-6).
Revelation of Christ (3:1a). Christ reveals himself as the One among them “who has the seven spirits of God” – a reference to Isaiah’s promised King endued by God’s Spirit, who will judge the earth and bring about his eternal, peaceful reign (Isaiah 11, esp. verse 2). He is also the One “who has the seven stars”, preserving and directing the affairs of his church. What great comfort to be held securely by this Great King!
Commendation (3:1b). There is no commendation for this congregation, apart from the fact that Christ knows the the activities of this community. Form the context it appears as though this church gained “a reputation” as pious in the city and/ or neighboring churches, through these works of religious adherence.
Condemnation and exhortation (3:1c-3). Christ has two charges against this church, both pertaining to their works. Firstly, “you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.“ Although there is much activity, there is no proof of life-giving witness. Secondly, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”: your works have been “weighed and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27) – it lacks substance. These works are paraded by this church as evidence of Christ’s life and kingdom, but these are merely pretenses, void of the life-giving impact it should have on the city.
Christ exhorts the church to “wake up!” and “put on strength” (Compare Isaiah 52:1). It is a call to arms, alerting the members of this church to be on the lookout for immanent, “unexpected” danger “like a thief” in the night. By telling this church they have been weighed and found wanting, and by calling them to be watchful, Christ is drawing their attention to his charge against Belshazzar’s Babylon, warning that there is an enemy outside the city walls, ready to destroy this church.
But in this letter – unlike the other six in Revelation 2 and 3, there are no enemies mentioned. No Jews or trade guilds, no Nicolatians, no Roman procounsel or Jezebel. We know surprising little of this church. Yet what we read is enough to wake up the reader: we know that they were spiritually dead, in spite of much religious activity. By alluding to the fall of Babel (a stinging reminder that Sardis fell the same way), Christ charges them that their pride prevents them to recognize how truly vulnerable they are.
Evidently the accusation against ancient Edom, that mountain kingdom, could be said of the church in Sardis: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3). Indeed, “pride come before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Warning and Exhortation (3:3-4). If there is no enemy in this letter, who should they be on the lookout for? Christ warns the church that he himself is poised and ready to scale the walls of this seemingly secure city and bring judgment on this proud church. Because it is void of life-giving witness, Christ will come to bring judgment on it.
This is a grim warning, but there is hope – a chance to “remember” what they had, to “obey” Christ’s commands and “repent” from their religious callousness. This letter is a gift of grace – the opportunity to turn and avoid immanent destruction.
Perhaps the commendation to “some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their (white) clothes with evil” give us some insight into the decay of this congregation. The phrase here points to the strong Sadrian cult of Cybele whose “pious” worshipers wore white ceremonial clothes. Yet these worshipers would participate in the most vulgar immoral acts during their worship rituals, soiling their clothes. This reveals that the Sardian church fell into acedia – a state of spiritual apathy or carelessness that unravels into immorality.
Although they upheld their religious habits, they were dead spiritually. Therefore their listless hearts gradually degraded into the sexual promiscuity of their city. This left the church callous towards God and their witness were void of the life and kingdom of Christ, resembling their hypocritical, religious community.
Promise (3:4-5). This grace-filled letter holds two promises. First, those who have stayed pure can be sure that they are “worthy”” to be received by Christ in his Kingdom, “walking with him in white.” And second, those who overcome this acedia, this spiritual apathy leading to carefree sinning, will also be clothed in white with Christ, and their name will never be blotted from Christ’s book of life – another hint to the cult of Cybel whose worshipers were recorded in her “book of life”. To those who repent, Christ declares complete forgiveness and shameless association: “I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
Bringing it home.
This sobering message to Sardis calls us to be aware that sin in all its forms are seductive and deceptive – that we should always “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Pride can give a false sense of security, leading us to fall into acedia. Acedia leads to dead religion at first, allowing our consciousnesses to be seared (1 Timothy 4:2), causing us to live a double life of hypocrisy – like the cult of Cybele and some in the church of Sardis.
How living is your public and private habits in Christ? Search your heart. Remember what you had a first, return to Christ, our Life, and his supremacy as Lord of your life.
For a short video recording of this sixth session through the book of Revelation, click here or on the image below.
How much freedom do we have in Christ? What may we do with our freedom? These are the questions that the church in Thyatira grappled with towards the end of the first century. Plagued by trials and temptations under tyrannical Roman rule, John penned words and comfort and correction to this and six other churches in Asia Minor about the victory we have in Christ; the circular letter is known as the Revelation of Christ.
Thyatira is known today as Akhisar in far west Turkey. This ancient city was strategically located as a buffer to the Roman empire, obstructing the path of its enemies and giving it time to gather military strength. It was located in a rich agricultural area and was famous for its purple dye. This city prospered during the Roman Empire through the security of the army and the trade routes through it. The remains of its temples and amphitheater bears witness of the culture of that day. History also teaches us that many Jews settled in Thyatira during the reign of Seleucus I (305-281 BC).
Thyatiran coins of that era reveal strong trade guilds of weaving, leather, pottery, and bronze melting active in this city. These guilds, forerunners to our trade unions, formed leagues who promoted and protected their trade and its workers. In this pagan environment the guilds had their own gods whom they worshiped together in the hope of success and prosperity. These regular religious rituals involved sharing in a feast consisting of the meats offered to the gods. These feasts ended in revelries and religious orgies, symbolizing the fertility of their trades.
Because of the pagan association of these trade guilds, Christians found it hard to work in cities with strong guilds: firstly because of a refusal to participate in the worship of pagan gods; secondly because they refused to eat meat offered to idols; and thirdly because of the perverse nature of these communal meals. And this was the contentious issue for the church in Thyatira at the time of John’s writing.
The letter of Christ to the church in Thyatira is the longest and sternest of all seven dictated to by John (Revelation 2:18-28).
Revelation (2:18). Christ reveals himself to be present with this church as “the Son of God” – implying the True Son of God. In Thyatira both emperor Domitian and the god Heracles were worshiped as “son of god”; yet Jesus starts this letter by asserting his authority and supremacy over the city and its church. He continues by revealing himself as One “whose eyes are like blazing fire” – who sees everything, with nothing hidden from his sight; “and whose feet are like burnished bronze” – a strong ruler with a secure reign (compare Daniel 2:31-35). Jesus comforts the church that his reign is lasting, but warns them that he sees everything and “searches the hearts and minds” (2:23) of all men.
Commendation (2:19). Jesus begins his letters to Thyatira with affirmation of their steadfast “works, love, service, faith and patient endurance” in this harsh and hostile environment, lauding that their have even increased! With this clear statement Christ honours the faithfulness of this church.
Accusation (2:20-23). But in this church the Lord also sees something abominable: this congregation allows a false teacher, “Jezebel… mislead(ing) my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” It is very improbable that there was a woman named Jezebel in the congregation at Thyatira because of the name’s origin and unfavorable connotations. Rather, the apocalyptic genre of Revelation invites us to read this “prophetess” as a type of Jezebel in the the Old Testament, revealing something of her character and conduct in the church, which Christ strongly condemns.
Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, was a Sidonianprincess married to Ahab, King of Israel for political association (1 Kings 16:31; around 850 BC). She is infamous for being the most wicked and destructive queen in Israel’s history. She was a priestess of Baal and Asherah, a witch practicing sorcery, who was set on making these pagan religions Israels official state religion (1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 9:22). Jezebel not only promoted the worship of these Canaanite fertility gods by erecting places of (immoral) worship and training Baal and Asherah priests, spreading them throughout Israel; she also violently persecuted all the priests and prophets loyal to God.
Therefore, as elsewhere in the Bible, Jezebel’s name in Revelation 2:20 is synonymous with leading God’s people into idolatry and immorality; she is one who turns the hearts of God’s people away from him through seduction, manipulation and intimidation. This Thyatiran “teacher and prophetess” sins against God and his people by permitting the church to participate in the perverse guild festivities – presumable under the guise of “freedom in Christ” (see Paul’s instructions in Galatians 5:13-26). Grace does not give the church freedom to sin, but freedom from sin.
Warning and exhortation (2:21-25). Christ states that he had given this prophetess time to repent, but now declares that he is about to judge her and all who hold on to her teachings. The judgment will be some severe sickness. The exhortation to the church is to turn away from this false prophetess’ “so-called deep secrets of Satan” (2:24) before the judgment begins. As God did with Ahab’s wife Jezebel, so the Lord promises to “kill all her children” to remind the Church “that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.” (2:23)
The phrase “searches the heart and mind” points to the core of the issue: these false prophesies were merely license for the church to live out their carnal desires for social acceptance and sexual appetites above allegiance to Christ. Like Paul warned, these transgressors “are being lead astray by their carnal desires.” (2 Timothy 3:6)
However – the Lord sees and honours those in this church who do not follow Jezebel’s deception teachings. To the faithful ones Christ “do(es) not impose any other burden on you,except to hold on to what you have until I come.” (2:24-25). The phrase “no other burden” reminds the readers/ hearers of the First Apostolic Council’s in Jerusalem which stated that gentile converts to Christianity did not have to fulfill the whole Torah, “except to abstain from from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication.” (Acts 15:28-29). Just remain faithful Jesus as you do now – He will come and reward you!
Promise (2:26-28). To the those “who overcome” Christ promises to share in his victorious reign (quoting from Psalm 2:9). He also promises “the morning star” – to share in Christ’s own glory (Revelation 22:16).
What should this church overcome? The only power Jezebel had over them was deception: telling them that what they really wanted was indeed permitted by Christ. This church’s desire for social inclusion and sensual lusts at these pagan feasts were what they had to overcome. They had to overcome the lure of temporal pleasures by the surety of a greater, eternal pleasure. Their refusal to partake of these pleasures in this pagan culture was witness to their allegiance to Christ and their hope of a better kingdom (Hebrews 11:16).
Bringing it home.
Although our work environments might not require outright worship of pagan gods, social pressure to conform is still strong, and refusal to participate in work-place customs often lead to exclusion and limiting career options. The temptation to conform to immoral or unethical work practices is very real today. But this means unfaithfulness to Christ.
Likewise, 2000 years of human development have not changed our sensual desires. The temptation to conform to contemporary immoral norms is as strong in our day as back then in Thyatira. This too is unfaithfulness to Christ.
Like the false prophetess “Jezebel” in Thyatira, there are many who say Christ’s grace covers these sins and therefore it is permitted. But Christ’s warning and exhortation to us is the same as to them: he is the judge who sees everything – so remain faithful until he comes and he will reward you.
This post is the fifth post in a series through the book of Revelation. Follow this link to a video recording of this post.
The Revelation John received was sent as a circular letter along a logical postal route through Asia Minor which started at the bustling city of Ephesus, moving north to ancient Pergamum, inland through Thyatira, and southeast to the wealthy city of Laodicea. This letter contained a prophesy from Christ to these seven churches to comfort them during the tyrannical reign of emperor Domitian (AD 90-92), to correct heir perspective in their their fight against evil, and to charge them to remain faithful to Christ – there is a reward for those who remain faithful to the end!
Pergamum was a magnificent ancient city which exited from the springs of civilization in Asia (around 500 BC). This city set on a hilltop overlooking the Caicus plain below. Pergamum (modern day Bergama) lay about 55 miles north of Smyrna, inland from the Aegean coast. The archaeological findings in this great city are rich in religious artifacts, including statutes and temples of Zeus, Athena, Dionysos (Baccus in Roman mythology), and especially Askelepios, the god of medicine, whose cult was strong and accounted for the famous school of medicine in Pergamum. Askelepios’ serpent was a prominent brand in the city, displayed on many of the coins pressed there.
Apart from the medical school, the city was famous for its great library, university, big parchment industry and the large amphitheater overlooking the valley. It was also a strategic Roman stronghold and inlandregional administration, boasting the first Asian temple of the Imperial Cult in honor of Augustus (AD 29).
In this ancient citadel which worshiped Domitian as king and lord, valued entertainment, education and science, was a vulnerable church who received this letter of comfort and correction, a charge to not compromise of their devotion to Christ in word or in deed (Revelation 2:12-18).
Revelation of Jesus Christ (2:12). Christ is revealed as the one among them with the sword – sharp and double-edged. This description of Christ’s double character in judgment of the world, and in particular the church, occurs seven times in Revelation (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16, 35; 6:8; 19:15, 21). Roman officials had the right to carry this sword – and with it the right to life and death. Christ here implies that his judgment can lead either to life (salvation through repentance) or death (judgment if the accused does not repent) – the reader or hearer must choose. This brief revelation of Christ among them sets the stern tone of the rest of this short letter.
Commendation (2:13). Again as in the previous two letters, the church is comforted that Christ is aware of all that takes place in the city and their works. “I know your works, and where you dwell – where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast to my name…” Christ honors their “works” of witness, their allegiance to him (“my name”), as well as holding on to “my faith” – true Christian faith undefiled by other religions – in this city dedicated to the worship of Domitian who claims to be sovereign king and lord of all (“where Satan’s throne is”), along with all the other gods. Their confession and faith is pure in an defiled city.
Jesus mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Being the regional seat for Roman administration, Pergamum held the court which tried rebellion against Rome. Where the accused was found guilty, an opportunity was given the to repent, or face immediate execution by the Roman procounsel. Antipas refused to worship Nero during his reign (AD 54-68) and was tried before the procounsel at Pergamum. He refused to recant his oath that “Jesus is Lord” and was executed in the cruel and unusual way of being burned to death in a brazen bull-shaped altar designed to cast out demons. The goal was to intimidate the church, but Christ commends the Pergamum believers for remaining faithful to him in spite of these horrific trials.
Condemnation (2:14-15). Yet the the believers in Pergamamum started to compromise. “Some (held) to the teachings of the Balaam”, a non-Jewish prophet who had a tremendous impact on Israel during their Exodus (Numbers 22-25; 38:8,16), and his influence remained a snare even to the New Testament church (2 Peter 2:15; Jude 1:1, 11; Revelations 2:14). I’ve written on “The Error of Balaam” before, but will summarise here: Balaam was an extremely gifted man of God who could hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, but he himself lead an independent, sensual lifestyle. With his mouth Balaam worshiped the God of Israel, but he lived his life like the immoral Canaanites “who ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality” (2:14). The “teachings of Balaam” was that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their sensual lifestyle.
Christ implies there were groups within the Pergamum church who worshipped and associated with the church, but chose to blend with the rest of the population by participating in their pagan, secular feasts to avoid social and economic isolation, and persecution.
Secondly, Christ condemns “those who hold the teachings of the Nicolatians” which the Ephesian church hated (2:6). Not much is known about this sect, apart from what we can derive from the name: “Nico” means conqueror, “laity” refers to the common people. It seems that in the Pergamum church there were some who asserted power in the world’s way, who claimed rights and privileges with power over others in an undue way. As in the gospels, Christ condemns this style of leadership – “the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-28).
Warning (2:16). Christ charges the church to “Repent”, or else he himself will “soon make war against (them) with the sword of his mouth”. This is strong language, a stern warning hinting to the judgment against the 24’000 “men who were joined with Balaam” (Numbers 25:5). The reason is that the church is Christ’s witness of his kingdom – a living community that displays what he and his coming Kingdom is like. Therefore the compromise of Balaam (right professing but immoral living) and the compromise of the Nicolatians (abusive leadership misrepresenting Christ’s character of loving, servant leadership) is a wrong witness of who Christ is and what his kingdom is like. This congregation, although professing right, have some who lived like the world they are in. Their witness is compromised, and Christ calls them to repent or be removed.
Promise (2:17). To the one who conquers Christ will give of his “hidden manna” (refering to the manna preserved in the ark of the covenant Exodus 16:33-34) – a sign of God’s providential grace. Also the promise of “a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” This white stone, a tesseron, was customary given to special guests invited to partake of feasts in the pagan temple at Pergamum – consisting of the meats offered to the idols. This tesseronwould bear the secret name of the deity represented by the idol, revealed only to the recipient. Christ’s promise of the “white stone” implied an invitation of intimate communion with him – even now. And this invitation is “to all who has a ear to hear.”
But what should this church overcome? The spirit of compromise – the seduction to worldly sensuality (of Balaam) and worldly power (of the Nicolatians). The tendency to think that mere cognitive faith (agreement to Biblical truths) results in right-standing with God. Christ desires a renewed heart resulting in holy living as witness to his kingdom.
Bringing it home.
Many writers have noted that “Pergamum” comes from the Greek word “gamos”, meaning marriage. This church professed to faithful to Christ, but was married to the world in regard to power and pleasure, according to the culture in which they lived.
Like the ancient Greeks in Pergamum, we too live in a world which values pleasure, power, scientific progress and independence. The invitation to us today is clear: to recognize where we, the church, are “married to the world” in this regard, and repent.
Turn your heart, that you too may share in the intimate pleasures of Christ reserved for those who live devoted to him.
This post is the fourth in a series through the book of Revelation. The link below takes you to a video recording outlining the post.
How does one endure hardship? And why? Why does God allow his people to undergo seasons of suffering? And where is God when it hurts? These are some to the questions that Jesus answers in the Revelation, a circular letter written by the apostle John to seven congregations in Asia Minor during the tyrannical reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90-92).
“Eighty six years I have served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? …You threaten me with fire that burns only for an hour… but you are ignorant of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. What are you waiting for? Bring on what you will!”
These were the last words St Polycarp, a famous martyr during another wave of heightened Roman persecution, revealing the grit and the attitude of the church in Smyrna. Polycarp was a pupil of the Apostle John, and probably the “angel of the church” (messenger / pastor) in Smyrna whom Jesus was addressing in Revelation 2:8-11.
Smyrna, present day Izmir in Turkey, printed coins which claimed it was “the biggest and most beautiful and city in Asia.” This coastal city was prosperous because of the trade routes and its natural beauty. The city was filled with magnificent temples and statues – a number of these are well preserved today. The statue of Bacchus (Roman) or Dionysus (Greek), god of wine and immoral reveling, tells us much about the culture of the day. So also the statue Cybele, mother of the gods, reveal that in this city women were honoured or even venerated within certain people groups. The citizens of this Greek city were loyal to Rome, dedicating a temple to the goddess Roma around 195 BC. It also had a temple preserved for the Imperial Cult, dedicated to the worship of the emperor.
Persecuted by the Jews. At the end of the first century (AD) Smyrna boasted a large community of Jews, bolstered by the migration of Judeans after the destruction of Jerusalem during The Jewish War (a major rebellion against the Roman Empire, 66 AD – 73 AD). These Jews were especially hostile to Christians – in part because during the siege of Jerusalem (70 AD) Christian Jews fled the city (prompted by a prophetic Word from the Lord), just before the total destruction of the city and its temple. Also, the Jews viewed the worship of Jesus as an abomination. These Jews were often the first to hand known Christians over to the Roman authorities for punishment.
Poor Christians. In this city, as in the wider community, Christians were often excluded from the formal employment sector because of the refusal to partake in the worship of the gods of the guilds (first century trade unions). In this pagan society each guild had its god(s) who demanded tribute in exchange for prosperity. Since Christians refused to worship any other gods, conversion implied the end of the careers. The only jobs they could take were for the “cursed” in society: garbage removal, sewerage cleaning, burial of the dead, etc. In the early Church therefore, being Christian was synonymous to being poor.
The letter to Smyrna follows the same structure as the other letters: opening with a unique and personal Revelation of Christ to them, it follows with a commendation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward. However, note that this church receives no condemnation or correction from the Lord as the others. What an inspiration!
Revelation of Christ (2:8). Christ reveals himself to this suffering community of believers as “The First and the Last” the Sovereign Lord over all creation, the Lord of Heavens’s Armies (Isaiah 44:5-6). He is indeed Sovereign over Emperor Domitian who claimed to be “king of kings and Lord of lords” – yes, He is even greater than the mighty Roman army!
But Christ further reveals himself as “He who died and yet lives”, as the One who conquered death itself – he did not avoid it, but endured and overcame it. By revealing himself in this way to these persecuted believers, Christ sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He comforts them that even if he does not save them from execution, death is not the end of their lives – as it was not the end of his. He lives forever, and they in him.
Commendation (2:2-3). As to the Ephesians, Christ commends the church in Smyrna for their faithful works – how they represent him well, even through the tribulation, in spite of their poverty, and under the incessant slander of the vengeful Jews. We can almost hear Jesus applauding them for their steadfast devotion to him in this harsh environment.
The hostility from the Jews in Smyrna is evident by Christ’s phrasing “the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Contextually, he states that even though these Jews read the Torah, they are no different from those who worship at the Imperial temple or even Satan himself! Paul clarified that a true Jew is not one by birth or circumcision, but one “inwardly, brought about by the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit” (Rom 2:29). The church are God’s true Jews, God’s chosen people.
As mentioned above, Christ has no correction, no condemnation for this congregation. He praises and encourages them to keep on doing the good works they are doing. Their suffering is not a result of their flaws of faithlessness. Why then do they suffer?
Exhortation and warning (2:10). Before he reveals something of the reason for their suffering, Christ warns them that they “are about to suffer (more).” Things will not get easier – it will get worse. This is never good news! But being forewarned is being forearmed – they can strengthen their hearts for what lies ahead.
Christ continues: “The devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.” They are looking towards a season of heightened persecution that involves imprisonment. (In the Roman world, life in prison life was harsh, involving torture, withholding basic needs like food and bedding; friends and family on the outside had to care for the inmates).
But Christ’s good news is that this season will be relatively short. “Ten more days” of hardship is not to be read literal in this apocalyptic genre; rather, it speaks of a full measure. Measuring what? Their devotion to Christ, the authenticity of their faith. Like Peter, Jesus tells them that this season of “testing”, this fiery trial they are about to enter, is to proof “the genuineness of (their) faith.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Christ says the devil will throw them in prison – but we know that Roman soldiers will execute that command. But the suffering does the testing of the faith – will they remain true to Christ during this season? This points back to the drama in the life of Job (chapter 1) – the faithful worshiper whom God boasted about, and whom Satan accused was not true in heart. The Father smiled and said “test him”, and the devil had power to take all he had, even laid sickness on him. But poor, worn out Job refused to turn his back on God – although he could not understand why God could allow this. In the end, Job’s faith was honoured by God and his faithfulness rewarded (chapter 42).
Christ is saying to the church in Smyrna, “As Job’s suffering by the hand of the devil proved his devotion to God, so the devil was granted permission to test some of you for a short season to prove the veracity of your faith”.
Christ promises a reward to those who remain faith until the end: “the crown of life.” The Olympian golden wreath, “The Crown of Life”, was given to the victors in these Greek Games as an prestigious honour. This was the ultimate award to victors, and Christ the True Emperor promises to bestow this reward on those who remain faithful until the end.
Later in the book of Revelation we will see how martyrs who remained faithful until death share in the honour of Christ, the Lamb who was slain as to witness to the Kingdom of God.
Promise (2:11). The letter ends with a promise – not just to Smyrna but “to all who hear” where this letter was circulated: “The one who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” Even though you might die and be hurt during this season of severe persecution, you will not suffer a second death – you will be spared from the Great Judgment.
But this promise is “to those who overcome” – overcome what? Overcome the fear of death, the fear of suffering, the love for this life. They are charged to endure and overcome the Devil and his Beast Rome, his Prostitute Babylon, and his False Prophet (the many pagan religions). Overcome the intimidation of the greatest threat the Beast of Rome could bring: death. Overcome the lure of an easy, painless life of pleasure like all those who bow to the Devil in Babylon living. Overcome the deception of the False Prophet and his false religions that says there are other ways to true goodness and peace.
And we read how some have overcome “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.” And by the way in which their pastor Polycarp died, we can see that this church took the warning and exhortation by heart.
Bringing it home.
Like the pagan world into which John wrote Revelation, our Western Christendom believes that prosperity is a sign of God’s approval of us. Likewise we think that when suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure and that his blessing is removed from us. The letter to Smyrna brings Job’s life lesson to us: that hardship is a test of our faithfulness to Christ (do I only worship Him when all goes well?), and that he rewards faithfulness to the end with the Crown of Life.
Secondly, we read that suffering will come, and we need to ready our hearts by knowing it is but for a brief moment, and our faithfulness is seen and will be rewarded by Christ.
I pray this message helps your perspective on your own seasons of hardship, and gives strength to your heart – as it was meant to do for the church in Smyrna.
This post is the third stop in our reflective journey through the book of Revelation, bringing us to the letter to the Ephesian church (2:1-7). For a brief video recording of this post, click here or on the image below.
Remember that song “You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feeling” from the Righteous Brothers, popularized by the original Top Gun movie (1986)? It gets to the heart of Jesus’ first letter to the churches, the church in Ephesus.
Ephesus was a prominent port city in the in the Aegean Sea, on the Western shore of modern-day Turkey, about 80 km south of Izmir, rich in archaeological discoveries.
Ephesus became the provincial seat of Roman government into Asia. It was renown for its scholarship, housing Heraclitus’ first university and the Great Library of Celsus (top left). The city was a cultural hub as witnessed in the well-preserved great Amphitheater (bottom right). The city was a religious center, most notably because of the temple (top right) of Artemis (Greek, central image) or Diana (Roman), and later because of Christian influence. In contrast, Ephesus was also known for its “sin industry” through the sailors frequenting its busy sea port. Its unique setting and well-developed harbor (bottom left) made it a trade hub into Asia and Greece – notably the Silk Trade Route.
These political, religious, educational, cultural and trade hubs made Ephesus very influential in the region. No wonder Paul stopped and spent more than 2 years there (Acts 19). It is fair to say that, after Antioch, Ephesus was the most prominent church in the New Testament. Other big apostolic leaders made Ephesus their headquarters, including Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Timothy and John. In some way the church in Ephesus still has the greatest influence in the church today because many of the New Testament letters were written either from or to the church in Ephesus.
It is therefore not strange that the first church Christ addresses in his letters is the church in Ephesus. By the time John penned these words of Jesus the Ephesian church was more than 50 years old – a second generation church that had grown significantly and endured a few waves of severe persecution from various emperors.
Keep in mind that this short, personal letter to the Ephesian believers is part of a circular letter to these seven congregations (1:11) with the aim to comfort the persecuted believers and to correct their perspective in their struggle against evil. As with each of these seven letters, this letter starts with a unique revelation of Christ, followed by a commendation, a condemnation, a charge, then a warning and finally a promise of reward.
Revelation of Christ (2:1). The letter, addressed to the “angel of the church” or “messenger/ pastor/ elder / leader of the church”, starts with the comforting reminder that Christ is among them, and securely holds and steers his church. Their suffering is not because He has abandoned them or that he has lost control; Christ is present and at work in this turmoil.
Commendation (2:2-3). Then Jesus affirms their persistent good works and their efforts in the witness of His kingdom. He honours their devotion to him amidst the seductive, immoral city. He praises them for enduring the suffering and yet remaining faithful to him.
Moreover, Jesus commends their keen discernment and scrutiny of people who claim to be sent of him, but are not. This is significant, because when the apostle Paul greeted the elders of this church 40 years earlier, he warned that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you… even from among you men will rise up, speaking misleading things, trying to draw away disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29-30) The testing of what is true and who is genuine has evidently become a value for this church – and Jesus applauds this.
Jesus commends the Ephesian church for their character of steadfastness, endurance and pursuit of the truth.
Condemnation (2:4). However, we see in this letter that although they keep on doing the right things, they have lost their first love. In the beginning all their good works, all their witnessing, all their congregating sprung from hearts set ablaze with newfound love. But now it was duty, merely (good) habits. They did the right things like before, said all the right things like before, but their hearts had grown cold.
Notice that Jesus does not say “You lost your love for me” – he points out that they lost that lovin’ feeling as a whole. Their good works in the city, their care for one another, their worship in their gatherings – all these good rhythms had lost its passion. It became a duty, not a delight as before. And the greatest command, which ought to be the mark of the church, is a life motivated by a love for God, overflowing in love for your neighbor (Matthew 22:38-40; John 13:34-35).
You only have one heart from which you live. When you’re in love everyone notices; your joyful heart gives you a joyful attitude which breeds joyful actions, bringing joy to others. But when love wanes because of disillusionment or disappointment, one’s attitude becomes apathetic or bitter, producing actions bound by duty or dread, resulting in dead works which does not give life. Just as joy over one thing overflows to all of life, so also disillusionment dulls all of life. That’s why the teacher warns us to “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)
How could this vibrant community’s passion fade? Many years of hardship could make their hearts callous. Consistently showing kindness to a city which in unkind to you can make a heart callous. Incessant business and the cares of this world can make a heart cold. Unanswered prayer and unmet expectations cause disappointments and disillusionment, which breed carelessness and apathy. “Loving can hurt sometimes” Ed Sheeran reminds us.
Exhortation (2:4b). How can a cold, callous hard be revived? The answer is in Christ’s charge to them. Firstly, “remember” the times when your heart burned with passion, when love overflowed in joy. Reflect on how you lived and felt from when you loved well. Then “repent” – decide to love and live like that again. Do those “first works” which flowed from your “first love“.
But note the key: “first” – the moment you met Christ and felt his love. That first kiss, that first taste of true love revived your heart and erupted in ardent adoration, generous giving and shameless witness. That first discovery of true love brought freedom, joy and delight to every aspect of your life. The call is to remember that moment, to relive that love by returning to those works.
Note that the Ephesian church was not accused of being passive; rather Christ commends their good, faithful works. Christ is not seeking more work – there is something in their duty that Jesus calls attention to – it is loveless, lifeless, lightless. The works have become disconnected from Christ himself – void of the display of love that would light up the city.
Warning (2:5). The church is a witness to God’s kingdom, a city on a hill, the light to the world. They ought be known by the love they have. Therefore Christ warns them that unless they return to their first love, “he will remove their lampstand form its place.”
The church is a lamp to the dark world and love it its light. A lamp with no light has no point. A church with no love has no witnessing power. Even preaching of the truth or demonstration of power without love are mere “clashing symbols” (1 Cor 13:1-7). Love is the essence of the Kingdom of God – it is the life of the church and the hope of the world. We have to fight for truth.
Promise (2:6). Before closing, Jesus commends the church for hating what he hates – the Nicolatians. (No, they were not a family who left the church!) “Nico” means conqueror, domineering the “laity” – the common people. Apparently this church resisted a church culture which allowed for forceful, harsh leadership that elevate some above others. Apparently the Ephesians had a healthy culture which honoured the “angel of the church” (2:1) – a leader recognized by God to serve the people – but hated domineering leadership that is the nature of this world (Matthew 20:24-28). And for this Jesus commends them, implying “you hate what I hate, now love as I love.”
He closes with a promise, “eat from the tree of life” – enjoying the fullness of his life and goodness – even in this harsh city filled with immorality and violence. Living from his love is sharing in his Kingdom.
Bringing it home
It is easy to identify with Jesus’ letter to the Ephesians. We admire their faithfulness to Christ and consistent good deeds in a hostile, immoral city. And can understand, even associate with their devotion degrading into duty.
That’s why Jesus’s accusation to them strikes us in our own soul: “you have lost your first love.” Have you? Does your heart still burn for Jesus as before? Are you know by your love for the community of believers? Does your love for the city overflow in generous goodness? The question is not so much about what you do as is it is do you live and act from a heart of love?
The invitation is clear: remember and return to your first love by doing the works that sprung from your first taste of Jesus’ love. Let the Lord revive your heart and restore your joy.
Never before in recorded history has people been so aware of the fragility of our existence, of human life. Natural disasters, plague-like diseases, terrorizing wars (abroad and at home), (global) economic depression, (global) political instability, cruel kidnapping and drug syndicates, even the violence in my own back yard (who knew?!). These updates and images are on my phone, in my news-feed, on every screen and every page that catches my eye.
Knowledge of these threats leaves us uncertain and afraid. We feel angry at the loss of innocence, the (illusion of) peace that we once enjoyed. We live in a pandemic of panic, in a world longing for peace, stability and security. We wall up, save up, or pack up in the hope of keeping the evil outside – but we learn that the spores of terror have landed on every continent, every community, every child. Is this The End? Is this THAT END?
Awareness of the destruction of our Father’s world brings believers down to our knees, looking up, praying our fears with tears. “How long, Lord?” “Lord, do you see? Do you care?” “Are you in control?” “When will you act?”
There were the cries and concerns of John and the believers during the tyrannical, egocentric reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome AD 90-92 who banished the old disciple to Patmos. But John’s prayers were answered when this island prison became his inner chamber with his Beloved Lord, containing a window into the throne room of God revealing the cosmic conquest of Christ’s victory over evil, culminating in the glorious restoration of all creation.
This letter of Revelation was a message of hope and comfort, to help and correct the early church in its struggle with evil – to endure both trials and temptation in faithful witness of Christ’s coming kingdom. Although this prophesy was written for them, it is preserved for us. Therefore, everyone who reads these holy words today and hears its invitation to “behold!” will also see how Christ is near to us, is moving in us, through us and for us his Church to accomplish the culmination of his glorious kingdom. This revelation of Christ’s victory over evil in this world, brings comfort and strength to endure until The End.
A note on my approach towards Revelation: In this discovery through Revelation I will not write scholarly or critical, but rather devotional and encouraging. The posts will be as all my other posts: an attempt to read the text from the view of the first readers. How did these seven congregations make sense of this apocalyptic prophesy from their imprisoned apostle? What was the message of hope to them? For this I will keep with the clear nature of the book: Revelation is an apostolic letter to seven congregations in Asia minor (1:4,11), which contained a prophesy from the Lord (1:3), in apocalyptic genre (1:1) which is rich in symbolic images and numbers, rooted in (a) their first century geo-political context, and (b) Old Testament literature. If we stick with these principles, the symbolism in this glorious book becomes alive and life-giving. (I expounded more on this in the first post in this series).
Greeting and blessing (Revelation 1:4-8)
This short greeting by John is a masterful introduction and succinct overview of the book’s message. He blesses his readers (and hearers) with grace (divine help) and peace (wellness) from the Triune God. His name for the Father “(He) who is and who was and who is to come” (1:4) takes the readers back to God’s self-revelation to Moses (Exodus 3:14) before His great deliverance from Egypt. The Spirit is titled “Seven Seven” (1:4) from Isaiah 11:2 in that great chapter that speaks of the Messiah’s divine wisdom and righteousness by which he will destroy the oppressive nations and restoration of all creation in peace. Here John says “God had delivered his people before from the tyranny you suffer, and He has promised to end this violence once for all!“
Next John answers the question “Can Jesus save us?” with a loud “Yes, he can and he will!” Jesus is firstly introduced as the “Christ” (1:5) – the long-awaited Messiah who will restore the righteousness rule of God on earth. Then Jesus is hailed “the faithful witness” to a church struggling to maintain faithful witness under tyrannical persecution and the seduction of a perverse society. He is held as their example who faithfully proclaimed and demonstrated God’s kingdom and eventually accomplished it by his vicarious death and resurrection: the ultimate witness of God’s Kingdom Coming to earth is Jesus rank “Firstborn from (or over) death” (1:5). Not only does Jesus have authority over every spirit, even death, he is also “Ruler over the kings of the earth” (1:5) – good news the readers oppressed by Emperor Domitian! These titles stirred flickers of hope to those battered congregations wondering whether Jesus is indeed the Christ who will bring righteousness and peace to earth.
The next portion answers the question in the heart of every suffering believer: “does God care about me?” John writes YES HE DOES! Jesus is called “Him who loved us and loves us and frees us from our sin by his own blood” (1:5) – a phrase which is more than reference to His cross: it is a clear allusion to the Passover lambs slaughtered to deliver God’s covenant people from Egypt by judging the oppressors and preserving them (Exodus 12:21 ff). And as God adopted and honoured the delivered Hebrew slaves, these em-battered believers were called “kings and priests to God” (1:6, compare Exodus 19:6), sharing in His eternal reign.
“But does God not see how we suffer by the hand of our oppressors?” Yes He does, and his Day of Judgment will come! Alluding to Zechariah 12:8-10, John writes how the Christ will defend and deliver his covenant people from their oppressors, and how he will reveal Himself in glory to those oppressors so that they will weep at his fierce judgment (1:8).
As the letter is prophesy, the greeting ends with Jesus introducing himself as “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End who is and who was and who is to come” (1:8). For the contemporary reader of the day the the Greek alphabet was known to have each letter attributed to a major Greek god. Thus, Jesus’ self-revelation comforted his hopeless church “I am the All-powerful, Ever-living One – your covenant God and Savior. Do not despair!”
Section 1: Christ among the Lampstands (Revelation 1:4-3:22)
Like prophets of old John describes how and where he received this prophetic message to these churches (1:9-10). Imprisoned on the Island Patmos, John was “In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” – meaning in fellowship with the Holy Spirit in prayer and worship on resurrection day – what we call Sunday.
This is significant. Although this beloved disciple was isolated, shamed and cruelly treated, his suffering did not lead him away from Christ to self-pity; rather it drew him to Christ as he drew near to the Lord in Spirit. And his cries and concerns in Spirit gave birth to one of greatest messages of hope the church had ever received.
A question every suffering believer asks is “Lord, where are you when I suffer?” This is the question the Lord clearly answers in the first section Revelation (Ch 1-3).
John hears Jesus a loud voice with the clarity and urgency “like a trumpet” declaring “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last” followed by the instruction to write what he sees in a letter to seven specified churches (1:10-11). (Throughout Revelation, what John hears and what John sees is very revealing, because things are not always what they seem to be at first).
John turns and sees Jesus walking among seven golden lampstands – the prescious, sanctified churches of Jesus, the recipients of the letters (1:12-13, 20). Where is Jesus while these churches are suffering? “I am among you” he says, “and I am intimately aware of what you are enduring for my name’s sake.” (Ch 2-3).
Then John describes how he sees Jesus, a vision that makes him collapse with awesome terror (1:17). John sees the Son of Man as described in Daniel: One Whom has received eternal dominion (Daniel 7:9-14; compare 10:4-9). The white hair, long robe and golden sash reveals Christ’s dignity and honour, his burnished feet portray the strength of his kingdom, the force of his voice cannot be ignored, his fiery eyes sees all and the sword portrays judgment from his mouth which brings both justice to the oppressors and mercy to the oppressed (1:13-16). This is Christ in his ascended glory.
“Do not be afraid – I’ve got this”
The first message of comfort this exalted King Jesus speaks to his suffering churches is “Do not be afraid” (1:17). Why not be afraid? Because this exalted, glorified, All-mighty King Jesus is with you, and for you. He is not distant or disinterested. He is with you and he knows and cares what you face. What’s more comforting is that he has faced the greatest this world can do to you (death), and conquered the grave, holding “the keys to death and Hades in (his) hands” as eternal comfort to his followers.
Christ’s message of comfort ends with the declaration that He holds the angels (messengers/ pastors) of these seven churches in his hand (1:16, 20). Thus Christ directs the world rulers and affairs towards his eternal reign (1:5), while protecting and directing his church in service of his unfolding reign, holding the leaders in the palm of his hand. What great comfort this must have brought to these struggling churches!
“Sounds great, but I don’t see it (yet)”
For a church in an uncertain, harsh world, these introductory words brought so much peace. The All-powerful, Ever-living Lord is among his people, promising to fulfill his long-awaited prophesy to eradicate evil from the earth and establish his reign of eternal peace – as it was in Eden.
But how is Christ working out his Great Restoration if it seems that this world is ruled by evil in violence, seduction and deception. For that answer, we will be invited to look from God’s perspective, to “Come up here” (4:1). But first the Lord will encourage and exhort each congregation (unpacking the church’s battle against evil), thus revealing Jesus’ intimate knowledge and care for each community of believers (Chapters 2-3).
Comfort and Encouragement from the book of Revelation during times of uncertainty and hardship.
What have you heard or read about the book of Revelation? How does that make you feel?
For many, their response to this book include feelings of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety. These feelings are exactly what the Revelation aims to address in its readers, leaving them feeling comforted, encouraged and hopeful in Christ’s presence and victory over evil in the world.
How then should we read Revelation to make the meaning clear, leaving us peaceful and hopeful during times of uncertainty and hardship? John states this clearly in his introduction: this document is an apostolic letter (1:4), containing prophesy from God (1:3), written in the Jewish apocalyptic genre (1:1). Reading the book with this in mind will leave you encouraged and exhorted to live confident in Christ through tough times.
THE NATURE OF REVELATION: A letter containing prophesy in apocalyptic genre
Revelation is firstly read as a letter of encouragement and exhortation to suffering believers. This epistle was penned by John (1:1,9; probably the Beloved disciple), while imprisoned on the island Patmos (1:9) addressed “to seven churches in Asia” (1:4; 1:11).
This means that the book becomes clear when it is read from the perspective of the first readers – the seven congregations in Asia minor listed as recipients. Like every other apostolic letter by Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John, this letter answered real questions, brought instruction, warnings and encouragement to the first readers. The letter was written firstly to them, and preserved for us. The truth becomes clear to us as we see what the letter meant for them.
Secondly, Revelation is called prophesy (1:3) – God’s Word to a people in a specific context. Like Isaiah, Amos, Malachi etc this book was prophesy (God’s spoken word) to the seven congregations in the seven towns in Asia minor. This message from the Lord brought real comfort and confidence as the Lord revealed love and care for them, but also corrections and challenges as prophesy always calls God’s people to covenantal faithfulness. Prophesy is always about God’s salvation of his people in a particular time and place.
However, Revelation – like many old Testament Prophets, places this Word from God in context of his historic work of redemption through the ages. It is said that 287 of the 404 verses in this book contain allusions to Old Testament Texts, notably from Exodus, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah. This means that the “prophet” John aimed to ground the message to these seven, suffering churches in the history of God’s great redemption of his people. God is bringing his great work of salvation to a climax.
Again, the calls the reader to read this book as a prophesy from God to the persecuted believers in these seven congregations. This prophesy was clear and made sense to them. If we want to understand God’s word of us, we have to understand God’s word to them first.
Thirdly, this book is self-titled as “Revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (1:1). This Jewish literary style, of which Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah are prime examples, was at its most popular during the time of John’s writing. Apocalypse means “unveiling” or “uncovering” and aims show that things are not quite as they seem – there is more at play here. More specifically reveals the heavenly drama behind our earthly struggles – that “our fight is not against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers, rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). Note how Revelation starts with the earthly reality of the seven congregations and shifts realms to show the cosmic drama behind everyday events.
Apocalyptic writing makes use of symbolism through vivid imagery and representative numbers in dramatic scenes that aim to evoke powerful emotions and a sense of participation in the story told. Secondly this genre is rooted in Old Testament literature; Revelation contains more than 550 Old Testament reference (but not one direct quotation, as this is uncharacteristic of the genre). Thirdly, Apocalyptic genre is rooted in the historic-political context of its day; the message of the writing was clear to the 1st Century Greco-Roman believers of their day, and that ancient context is our key to unlock its meaning. Lastly, this genre (like most Jewish genres) is not chronological. The reader should not ask “what happens next?” but rather, “what does John see next?” The letter is written in the sequence of John’s visions, not chronological time – and therein is much meaning.
THE CONTEXT into which John wrote Revelation
The letter of encouragement and exhortation is set during the terrifying reign of Domitian, Emperor of Rome (AD 90-92). This egomaniac revived the Imperial cult (much like the infamous Nero thirty years earlier) and decreed that all his subjects worship him by offering incense, exclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” For most of the Greco-Roman pluralist this was an easy instruction to comply to… unless you live by the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” This led to the severe persecution of Christians, resulting in their imprisonment, torture and execution. Sadly, due to their hatred for the “blasphemous” Christians, Jews were often the first to turn their Christian neighbors over to the Roman authorities.
Suffering did not only come by Roman persecution. Many communities in Asia minor suffered from disasters such as earthquakes, droughts, barbaric raiders and widespread disease. People lived in fear.This led to the cruel treatment of Christians by their pagan neighbors, convinced that these disasters were the result of followers of Jesus’ refusal to worship the gods of the elements. This left Christians ostracized, excluded from public social life and the market economy.
This severe persecution and hardship caused many Christians at the end of the 1st century to lose hope in Christ’s return and to doubt his power over the affairs on earth. Is Christ’s kingdom greater than that of Domitian? If so, how?
However, a greater threat was the seductive nature of the Greco-Roman lifestyle: sensuality, perversion and revelry were the order of the day and frequently associated with the worship of pagan gods. Against the backdrop of persecution and the pain and poverty resulting from social exclusion, the pleasure and prosperity associated with participation in this sensual society seemed seductive. It seems that many believers were tempted to draw away from public witness of Christ and partake with the culture of the day.
In his apocalyptic letter John describes this worldly struggle as the intimidation from the beast (worldly power), the seduction from Babylon the great harlot (sensuality), and the deception of the False Prophet (false religions) – all three servants of the Great Dragon (Satan) warring against the church.
John, far from the churches in his care, was praying for these believers subjected to hardship and vulnerable to temptation. Then Christ invited him to see their present reality in the light of the cosmic struggle played out on earth. In and through this His Kingdom was advancing!
THE AIM of the Book of Revelation
The Revelation shows Jesus Christ as victorious over the forces of evil, leading his church in victory over their enemies (17:14). This prophesy aims to firstly comfort the church in its struggle against evil by showing them that Christ is among them (1:12-20) and that he is intimately aware of their unique situations (ch. 2-3). He steers the world affairs in the interest of his church (5:7,8), in response to their prayers (8:3,4). The revelation show that God sees their tears (7:17, 21:4) and will avenge their blood (19:2), yet their victory is assured (15:2). Lastly, the revelation reassures them that Christ is coming to take his people to Himself to live with them in His renewed creation (21:22), stirring a confidence for His return (22:17).
Secondly this prophesy is a correction of the church’s perspective in its struggle against evil. Though it may seem their prayers are ineffective (6:10) we see God’s response (judgments) as result of it (8:3-5). Though they seem defeated, they reign now on earth (5:10), will reign with Christ (20:4) forever in the renewed creation (22:5). Though it may seem that the dragon (12:3), the beast (13:1), the false prophet (13:11) and Babylon (14:8) wield power on earth – they are all defeated (18:2; 19:20; 20:10) and will be bound forever. All is not as it seems.
Thirdly, this prophesy calls for renewed commitment to Christ in his struggle against evil, patient endurance in trials and steadfastness in resisting temptation. For this there are great rewards (22:12).
HOPE TO THE CHURCH IN ANXIOUS, UNCERTAIN TIMES
The structure and layout of John’s Revelation letter brings much hope to fearful, confused believers during hardship. The Spirit shows John firstly that Christ is among his people (ch. 1-3), secondly that God is on his throne and Christ is unfolding his Kingdom reign in history (ch. 5-16), thirdly what this world is really like and how Christ will conquer it (ch .17-20), and lastly the renewed creation in beauty and peace, with rewards for the faithful (ch. 21-22).
1: Christ is with his church
The first thing John sees is that the church is not abandoned by God during their hardship. The Spirit reveals Christ walking among his people, between his suffering congregations (1:10-13). Then Christ reveals his intimate knowledge of every congregation’s faithfulness, challenges, struggles, and promisew (ch. 2-3).
The comfort for every believer and believing community today is the same: Christ the Victorious One is with us, always among us. He knows our efforts and struggles and will reward our faithfulness.
2: God is on his throne, and Christ is unfolding his redemptive plan for creation
The second thing that the Spirit shows John is God on his throne in all his goodness and glory (ch. 4), and Christ receiving the Scroll of God’s redemptive plan with his creation (ch. 5). As Christ opens the seals, rolling out God’s kingdom reign with cosmic consequences calling the nations to repentance before the Great Day of Judgment (ch. 6-16).
This reassures the church during turbulent times that indeed God is in control, and that these events which shake our world is part of Christ’s work in establishing his peaceful reign on earth – even through the hardship we face. In some way these events are answers to the cry of his saints (5:8; ch. 16).
3: The nature and spirit of this world (Babylon and her Beast)
The third thing the Spirit reveals to John is the true nature of this world, which is likened to seductive Babylon and her power-hungry Beast (ch. 17). John also sees her fall and judgment – with all who follow her (ch. 18-20).
The unveiling of this fallen world stirs our hope in Christ and strengthens our resistance to temptation because we know that the best this perverse, power-hungry world has to offer is corrupted and temporal. But one Day Christ will return to bring lasting justice and goodness and peace, to restore lasting joy to His people.
Furthermore, the knowledge of judgment on this greedy and oppressive world brings much comfort and hope to those suffering under this regime – as was the case in John’s day. Judgment of the consuming lust and abusive power of rulers (and their cronies) means the vindication and deliverance of the oppressed. In God’s kingdom the oppressed is freed, the hungry is fed, the naked is clothed because their oppressors are judged.
4: The New Heaven and New Earth
The last thing that the Spirit shows John is God’s new creation (ch. 21-22) – the marriage between heaven and earth. John is encouraged to see that God’s creation will be reconciled with its Creator and his image and reign will be restored in mankind. Indeed, John is comforted that the pain and sorrow of suffering and death that now marks the church’s existence will be no more, because “Look! I make all things new!” (21:4-5). The faithful is richly rewarded, the perverse are judged (21:7; 22:12-14).
This unveiling of Christ’s great renewal stirs much hope that our tears of suffering and sorrow are short-lived; he has conquered sin and death forever. Furthermore, overcoming the temptations of sin and terrors of persecution does not go unnoticed; our brief endurance of hardship secures our eternal rewards in Christ’s eternal reign. This is great encouragement and exhortation to hold on to Christ’s promise: we will inherit His kingdom and receive His rewards.
TAKE IT TO HEART
Reading the Revelation as a letter to seven real congregations facing severe hardship on every front, as a prophesy of encouragement and exhortation from God about his redemptive work in and through them, in the emotive, unveiling genre of apocalypse makes the main message clear. (Yet there are difficult parts – as in every Bible book!)
Even this simple outline encourages me that Christ is always among his church, ready to comfort, correct and call to his church commitment during hard times. It reminds me that God is always in control, and that Christ is always busy unfolding his redemptive plan with creation. This unveiling calls me to see this fallen world in all its splendor and power is at best corrupted and temporal, but Christ’s kingdom is eternal, and his reign will be marked with restored beauty, justice and peace, eternally. And the bonus: my faithfulness and your faithfulness during these hard times will be rewarded!
How do you feel about the message of Revelation now? Ready for a deeper look into chapter 1?