22 May 2022
Passage Revelation 2-3
Speaker Chris Haley
"Video killed the radio star," so said the Buggles in 1979! But nowadays Google has killed the family doctor! Nowadays we don’t go to our GP first, we go to google. There are hundreds if not thousands of websites where you can put in your symptoms and it will tell you what’s wrong with you. It’s sort of the norm now. I went to the doctors a couple of years ago
I told him my symptoms and the first question he asked me was, “What do you think is wrong with you? Have you googled it?” Wow I thought, this must be it now! We come to the doctor not for a diagnosis, but to confirm what we’ve found on google! As it was I had had a brief look on google, so I did have a rough idea. So I told him. What I wasn’t expecting was then when HE googled my symptoms right in front of me, and then told me what he found! Google has killed the family doctor, we’re all experts now in self-diagnosis now.
As we go through the passage this morning it will require some self-diagnosis. We need to look at ourselves seriously. It will be tempting to try and diagnose others, other people, other churches, but God wants us to look at ourselves first and foremost
So first of all...
Understanding the Lampstands
There are two big misunderstandings as we come to the seven churches:
- They are not just about the past
There is a school of thought that says Revelation speaks exclusively to the time it was written, that what read about Sardis is just about Sardis, what we read about Ephesus is just about Ephesus, but in a book so packed with symbolism, it would be strange if it was like. And to be fair we don’t read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that way either- we understand with that letter that it has been preserved for the church to speak to us today. Surely we’d imagine as much for these letters?
- Neither are they a chronological plan of history
There is a popular school of thought that says the letters are seven stages in church history, starting with Ephesus, and then in the very last days in Laodicea. Quite a popular view in some circles!
Three good reasons why it’s not though:
- We’re forever obliged to be in Laodicea!
Right from when this view was first put forward theologians have been saying we’re in the age of Laodicea- the last one, the one we had read out, the one that was neither hot or cold. However, many centuries had gone before were divvied up and the present day church whenever it was, was placed in the time of Laodicea, and as time has moved on the divvying up has changed, but the age we live in is still the same- Laodicea. Why? Because rightly we’re taught in the Bible to expect Jesus imminent return- He could come any day, we don’t know the day or the hour, so we’re ready. That doesn’t square so well with putting yourself several ages away from His return. No-one has ever said the church is in the age of Sardis or Philadelphia, even though now theologians would say that they were. Every age seems to think it is lukewarm, even when we look back and taken in the broad view of history it looks hot! That to me makes this view suspect, whenever we are we have to be Laodicea.
Second reason why it doesn’t work so well:
- All these churches should be Ephesus churches!
If these churches sum up the ages then all the churches written to should be in the age of Ephesus, having lost the love at first, hating the Nicolaitans, and rejecting false apostles, but they’re not. No-one argues that the descriptions given did not apply to the actual churches at the time it was written, but if Ephesus describes the general state of the churches at this time shouldn’t they all sound like Ephesus? But they don’t. Some tolerate the Nicolaitans, some are commended for their love, some are rebuked for their lack of discernment. If anything it shows us that in every age there is a diversity of conditions in the church.
- It makes no sense of what’s going on in the rest of the world
Schemes that make this about the church generally only make this about the church in the west, not about what is going on globally. For example: There may be a large number of Laodicea like churches in the UK at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that’s the case everywhere- that doesn’t mean we can make a generalisation about Christ’s global church from what is going on in one country. So imagine I go to Nigeria with this chronological approach in mind. In Nigeria this week a Christian student was stoned to death and her body burned after she was accused of blasphemy against Mohammed. Shops owned by Christians in the town were looted and Christians attacked after the authorities detained two suspects. I go to the churches in that area and I say the Lord Jesus has a message for you- I know the age we live in, and I read to them Revelation 3:15-16 written to Laodicea “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16 ESV)
What if I read that to the church in North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, or North Sudan? What if I read it in Brazil or parts of Africa or to the Iranian church where Christianity is growing incredibly, even in the face of opposition? It makes no sense! The chronological approach doesn’t work
It’s better to think of these churches as typical churches in our age. We find all of them across the whole of the time between Jesus’ ascension and Jesus’ return. As we said, in this province of Asia there were already different churches facing different situations. It was like that then, it’s like that now. Seven then stands for completeness, together they represent the whole of church across all of time. Not one at a time, but all at the same time, but it means we need to ask ourselves two soul searching questions: ‘As a church what church are we most like- what does the Spirit have to say to us as a church?’ And second: What church am I most like? Maybe I feel I’m at a going for it church like Smyrna, but inside I feel like a Laodicean- neither hot nor cold, or an Ephesian, I’ve lost my first love. This should penetrate my heart as an individual too. Going to one church or another, doesn’t mean I share its heartbeat, for good or bad, so as we read this we need to think about our own situation.
So what we’re going to now is a brief tour of the churches, and see what the Spirit has to say to each one- Not loads of extra verses this week, but seven churches to get through!
A Brief Tour
We saw last time that these churches were all real churches across Asia minor, modern day Turkey. The letters are written in order going round clockwise from Ephesus. All of the letters to these churches basically follow the same pattern:
- Something about Jesus who is speaking
- Something good about them
- Something bad about them
- Action their to take
- Encouragement for the conqueror
- He who has an ear…
Every letter follows that pattern with a couple of variations. It makes them really easy to compare. So let’s have a brief look at them:
So first Ephesus
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:1-7 ESV)
Jesus is pictured here are the high priest walking among the lampstands, tending to them, keeping them alight. Jesus can see their works their toil their endurance. He can see the way they’ve been discerning and rejected false apostles out to trick them. They also hate the Nicolaitans (We’ll come back to them when we meet them in Pergamum).It is a church that is doctrinally and morally pure… but they have lost their love. Probably in context their love for one another. Though for John love for one another is a visible sign of our love for God. They are busy dong works of righteousness! They love doctrinal purity- great! They love moral purity- great! But they don’t love each other!
Busy, moral, but loveless. And Jesus threatens them in some of the strongest words in the letter, “I’ll take your lampstand away- there won’t be a church anymore. If you don’t repent and go back to loving one another like you once did- I’ll come and end the church in Ephesus.” But if they will repent Christ offers them the tree of life- Eternal life in the garden- in the New creation. That is what the Spirit says to Ephesus.
Smyrna is a whole other kettle of fish…!
8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 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. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ (Revelation 2:8-11 ESV)
In Smyrna they’re having a tough time. Christ is presented as the eternal one, who died, but came back to life. He faced the persecution and came out the other side! They are being slandered by the non-believing Jewish community in their area, but Christ has nothing bad to say about this church! There’s no warning other than to tell them to hold fast and not fear as more testing is coming. Ten days- ten means ‘some’ in Revelation- a bit like we use the word ‘dozen’. The more tens, the bigger. So, some bad days ahead but not it’s not forever, and if they keep going, even to death
God will grant them the crown of life. The crown of life from the one who rose to life. And they won’t be hurt by the second death- which refers to the eternal torment we read about in chapter 20.
What about Pergamum?
12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.
13 “‘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. 14 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 practise sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ (Revelation 2:12-17)
Pergamum is continuing, but compromised. Pergamum was the leading religious centre of the area- the Canterbury of Asia Minor. But it was a centre for all sorts of faiths. It was a big centre for emperor worship, but it had a large altar to Zeus situated on the hill overlooking the city. Not essential for the meaning, but it might explain the reference to ‘Satan’s throne’. Also remember in those days gods and idol worship was often linked with relations with temple women- that will help us understand better as go through. They’ve had folk who have stood against the tide of immorality in the city, who have witnessed to Jesus and have paid the ultimate price- Antipas is mentioned as a faithful witness- the same phrase used for Jesus in chapter 1. That’s the good.
The bad is that some of them are following false teaching, causing people to stumble. Most people link it with Nicolaitan heresy- it has something to do with idolatry and food, and something to do with sexual immorality. It’s likely to do with meals and festivals held there (often by trading guilds). “Come, eat, worship, sleep with one of the girls from the temple. It’s ok- we’re free in Christ!” They are told simply to repent- turn around, stop it, have a change of heart, a change of mind, otherwise Jesus will no longer be for them, but against them with the two edged sword which comes from his mouth. If they do change and keep going Christ will feed them hidden manna- they won’t need to keep going to these feasts. He will give them a ticket to his festival- a white stone was used as a ticket to one of these feasts. He will protect them from curses- in the ancient world they believe names had power over people. He’ll give them a name no-one knows- they’ll be safe
18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 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 practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:18-29)
Thyatira is the central one, the longest one, and the most mixed picture we get. On the one hand they’re commended for their works, love, faith, service, endurance, unlike Ephesus they’re growing in these things, but on the other hand some are following a false teacher. Some are following, and the others are tolerating. They seem so loving and accepting they won’t confront them, but that’s a problem. The false teacher is called here, probably symbolically, ‘Jezebel.’ Jezebel was an Old Testament queen who led the people into idolatry. Jezebel here calls herself a prophetess, probably teaching what she called the ‘deep things of God’, parodied in v24 as ‘the deep things of Satan’. In fact she is teaching sexual immorality and idolatry. There were some at this time, we know from church historians who believed the “all things in common” included partners. It’s possible that’s what’s going on here. They are warned in the strongest terms, “The bed where you commit adultery with her will become your sickbed, if you don’t repent! You’re in for trouble and tribulation!” The children he threatens to kill are probably a symbolic reference to her followers, John speaks this way in 1, 2 & 3 John. The rest in Thyatira are to hold fast though. If they hold on, they will reign with Chris, they will be given the morning star- a reference to Christ in Revelation 22:16. Christ will be theirs, and they will reign with Him.
1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 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. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’
Sardis is told that Christ is the one who has the Holy Spirit, and the angels of the churches- the seven stars. Sardis are a church on the brink- they look alive, but they’re dead! They’re a walking corpse! Asleep on the job, about to die! They’ve got a good reputation, but it’s just a show. They’re not producing the works they should and they’re sullied by the world- Christ has nothing good to say about them! How devastating is that? That said there are a few in Sardis who aren’t like the church as a whole, and they one day will be clothed in white. All who conquer will be given white robes, washed in the blood of Christ, we’ll find out. Their names will never be blotted out of the book of life, they’re in permanent ink if you like! And Christ will confess their name before his Father
7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.
8 “‘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. 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. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 3:7-13)
Philadelphia is like opposite of Sardis- Christ has nothing bad to say about them! They’re like a rose between the two thorns of Sardis and Laodicea. They’re small, they’re fragile, but they’ve kept going despite opposition from non-believing Jews in the area. They’ve kept confessing Jesus, even when the doors of the synagogue were closed to them. Christ here is the key of David, holy and true, who really has the keys to most important door- the keys to glory. No-one can shut them out of there. They are simply told to hold fast, to keep going. God will spare them the trial ahead. No ten days like Smyrna, God knows what His people can cope with! And the promise is that one day they will be a pillar in God’s temple, the church victorious, one day God will write his name on them- no-one will be able to say they are not His. And His city too. The representative of the Old Jerusalem may have blocked them out, but they belong to the New Jerusalem!
Lastly, everybody’s favourite…
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (Revelation 3:14-22)
Christ here is pictured as the Amen! The Faithful and True witness, like Antipas who had been martyred for his faith. It’s a stinging rebuke, because Laodicea are not in danger of this. Even though just up the road Christians are dying for their faith, in Laodicea they’re living quite comfortably. They are the meh! Church! Neither hot nor cold, lukewarm. Again not essential to our understanding but Laodicea was a wealthy spa town, the Ilkley or Harrogate of the province. It had a hot spring which people came to for healing. Well I say ‘hot’ spring, a warm spring. It wasn’t all that great for heat, and it wasn’t very pleasant to drink either, hence them imagery: Your faith is like your water- tepid, lukewarm, meh! They thought they were doing quite well- and they were… materially, but they were blind to their spiritual apathy. Christ sets them straight. They’re wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. Imagine saying that to one of the posh folk from Harrogate, or the millionaires in Ilkley! “You need something from me,” says Jesus, “Gold, not the shiny stuff, real treasure, treasure in heaven. Nice clothes, not your Guchi and FatFace, white robes, washed in the blood of Christ. Eye cream, not your knock offs from M&S, something that will open your eyes to the truth!” “Get some zeal back and repent,” says Jesus! “I’m knocking, and if you heed my voice you’ll open up- and we’ll eat together, and eating with me is far better than eating at Betty’s! And when we’re done you’ll sit with me on my throne- a real throne, not the world’s pretended thrones.” He who has an ear let him hear what the spirit says to the churches.
But here’s the big question of the morning, and your last point- briefer than the last one…
Where are we?
So where are we? Where I am? Where are you? After a passage like this, this is a good time to take stock.
Some of us may be going through the mill- facing trials, troubles and maybe even scorn and ridicule for others- like the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia. Keeping going despite struggles. We need to hear that message to keep going, to hold fast to what we have. We don’t know whether we’ll be spared more trials like the church in Philadelphia, or whether we can expect more, like the church in Smyrna.
Either way we must hold fast- keeping that encouragement in mind: Those who conquer, who “who keeps my works until the end,” as it’s explained in 2:26, will be made pillars in the church, have Christ’s name written on them, will get the crown of life on the last day. “Keep going!” says Jesus. “Keep going!” says the Spirit, “Don’t lose your crown!”
Some of though may finding things hard, and as a result we’ve comprised like the church in Pergamum. Things are hard, but we’re holding on, but we’ve let things slip, morally and spiritually. We’ve compromised with the world and we’ve got ourselves into some difficult situations. Jesus’ message is simple: repent. Turn around, get out of that situation. Remember that Christ can give us all we need
If that means we miss out in the world, that’s ok. We’ve got food Christ will give us. We have tickets to a better party. We don’t needs the world’s protection. Christ wants us to remember that.
Some of us may be like Ephesus or Thyatira- we’re very busy, we’re active in church life, but being so discerning we’re lost our love for our brothers and sisters: like the Ephesians. Or being so loving and accepting we’ve lost our discernment like the Thyatirans. Both are dangerous in their own way. Both need to be repented of. Both have hefty warnings, but both great encouragements: eating from the tree of life, reigning with Christ!
Some of us may feel like the Laodiceans- Lukewarm in our faith. Christ would have us go back to Him for what we need: for healing, for clothing in His righteousness. He would have us be zealous again!
The word from Greek is derived from the word for heat! Get some fire in your belly for Christ again! How? Repent! Wherever it is you’re headed now, give up turn around and go back after him with all you’re the strength you can muster! Open the door and dine with Christ! Do the things that make your heart warm to Him! Have a favourite passage that moves you? Read it! Have a favourite hymn or song that gets you deep down? Listen to it! Have a Christian who always points you to Jesus? Ring them! Meet them! Have them to stay! Don’t go cold, heat it up and one day you will sit with Christ on His throne.
Maybe there are even some of us who feel like Sardis- we’ve got a reputation for being alive, but deep down we know we’ve not done anything for God for years. We’re living off past growth, rather than having a living faith in the here and now. We look the part, but it’s partly we’ve played the part for so long. Inside, spiritually we know there’s the not much going on. Even for those of us who feel like that, there is hope says the Lord! What we need to do is wake up, fess up and repent. Remember what you’ve heard, and keep it! If you do Christ will never blot your name out, He will confess you before His Father.
He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to us as individuals!
But where are we as a church? I think that’s a really tough question. Part of the issue here is that the churches seem oblivious to their condition. Self-diagnosis, as we said at the beginning is really hard, that’s partly why God is speaking to them through John! It’s often easier to think we know how other churches are doing? It would be dead easy to point the finger at other churches, but the Lord wants us to examine ourselves! Where are we?
These are the sorts of questions we need to be asking ourselves- and the church is the whole body not just the leaders: Are we a church that is tolerating false teaching? Are we a church that is lapsing into immorality? Are we a church that loves one another? More than we used to do? Are we a church that is remaining faithful under fire? Are we a church that is alive spiritually? Or do we just have a reputation for being alive? Those are hard questions, and we need the Spirit’s help to help determine the answers. Whatever diagnosis we think of though the thing to remember is that in all these cases change is possible. Jesus warns, but He always gives a way to change. And it’s usually a heart change, a culture change, a repentance by the church, but no church here is a lost cause- all churches have issues, what Jesus would bid us do though is not just diagnose, but act! And the main action comes not in structures or systems, but in hearts, in your heart, in my heart. So let’s pray that God would give us insight into where he would have us change- to self-diagnose, and the strength to change, as individuals, and as a church.