Friday, September 19, 2008

Revelation 2, Jesus Addresses the Church

The Insincere Church

This message to the Ephesians is a grieving complaint that the congregation had left its “first love” and thus stopped loving Jesus sincerely.

2:1 "To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, 'These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands:"

Two things in this opening address are consistent in all seven letters:
  1. The letter is addressed to "the angel of the church"
  2. Jesus speaks of Himself in imagery mostly drawn from Chapter One

The "angel of the church", as we discussed earlier, is the pastor of the church (see notes—Rev.1:20). These letters are addressed to the one responsible for sharing the message with the members of the congregation.

The imagery Jesus draws from in these letters is consistent with the way He revealed Himself to John (in Chapter One) because it's part of that event. Whereas, John, as instructed, described for us in the previous Chapter what he had seen in beholding Christ, he now writes what Jesus has to say concerning the things which are; namely, the Church. We will see in these letters, Jesus using components of His image to describe Himself to the particular congregation in order to speak to the nature of that church's condition.

"He who holds the seven stars in His right hand…" This seems intended as a reminder to Ephesus that He (Jesus) is the One Who upholds and empowers the pastor, and therefore He to whom the church is subject in all things as the Head of the church (Col. 1:18).

"…who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands" continues the admonition by reminding Ephesus that He does move about the church, watchful to guard against internal and external evils, and mindful to rightly preserve its spiritual well-being.

2:2-4 "I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name's sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

It's not a good sign when Jesus follows praise by rebuke. But it is worth noting, as we will see in these letters that Jesus ascribes His knowledge of the congregation's works, good or bad, but always acknowledges the positive before the negative.

On one hand, the works of the Ephesians were great. According to Jesus, they labored hard to serve the church, persevered in their duties with patience, weeded out the unrepentant, and guarded themselves against false teachers and doctrines. Moreover, they did it gladly for His name’s sake without growing weary.

On the other hand, however, they were short of love, and Jesus rebukes them for it. Listen to His complaint:
"Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love."
The love in question here is the "early love". That first enthusiastically warm and affectionate love following a new life in Christ, where self is denied, all that displeases God is gladly abandoned, and fellowship one with another is joyfully embraced. It is this love, the love kindled in the beginning when we first accept Christ as Savior, from which the Ephesians had strayed. As one commentator puts it, because they lacked sincerity, "they were going through the motions without emotion".

Here's my guess how the delinquency might have played out in the church:

Services were attended out of obligation or force of habit rather than a passionate desire to worship God as it was in the beginning; and fellowship, where earlier hearts for one another were tender, became argumentative and divisive.

2:5 "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place-- unless you repent.

This is a strong admonition, but at the same time, I see it as a very tender appeal by Jesus because of one word:
Memory is a powerful and driving force. Otherwise, we wouldn't return to the ocean for a walk on the beach, to a restaurant for our favorite food, or to an old photo album for the umpteenth time. Memorable recollections of pleasant experiences always cause us to return to those things that we’ve enjoyed in the past. That’s why I believe Jesus uses the word. Not just to command them, but to arouse in them into a fond memory of their early love with Him. So they would correct their condition by their own volition and not require Him to chasten them.

Okay, but we can’t neglect the ultimatum: Ephesus must repent and return to their first love quickly or else they would be chastened by having their “lampstand” removed from its place. What does that mean?

Keep in mind that the Church is symbolized as a lampstand because our primary function to Christ is that of a light-bearer to uphold light (Matt.5:14-15). When we, the Church, uphold Jesus Christ (Who is light; John 8:12), we serve Him because we illuminate Him to the world. On the other hand, when a wrong attitude quenches the work of the Holy Spirit, and we no longer enlighten hearts with the love and glory of God, our usefulness to Christ ceases; a concern, incidentally, that generally plagued even the Apostle Paul (I Cor.9:27). Much the same way you and I would remove a lamp that becomes faulty because it's no longer useful, Jesus threatens to remove Ephesus. Not that it meant a loss of salvation; the congregation was at risk of losing any future opportunity to be of service to Him.

2:6 "But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

It's generally accepted that the Nicolaitans were an early heretical sect that arose during the apostolic period of the church, and in some cases influenced it (much as they did Pergamos and Thyatira). Although their origin is somewhat of a mystery, their practices were most likely pagan in nature and crowded with idols and idolatrous worship. It’s also possible that this sect embraced a system of ideas involving tyrannical lordship over the church; that is, they pretended to have apostolic authority in order to rule over the affairs of new Christians in the early Church. This is drawn by some commentators from the meaning of the name nicolaitans, which in Greek means, "to overcome the people.”

Whoever the Nicolaitans were, though, Jesus found their deeds abhorring, and further commended the Ephesians for keeping them out of the congregation.

2:7 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God."

It should be pointed out that each of these letters to the Church concludes in the same way:
  1. An admonition to "hear what the Spirit says to the churches”
  2. A promised blessing to "him who overcomes"

Before His departure, Jesus said of the Holy Spirit, "He will guide you into all truth" and "He will tell you things to come" (John 16:13). We must "hear" (not just listen, but also hear with the heart to be in agreement with God) when the Spirit speaks. For the Holy Spirit speaks truthfully to us about both, admonition and promise. We take the phrase "him who overcomes" to signify the ones, who by faith, overcome the world and find victory in the saving grace of Jesus Christ (1 John 5:5).

“To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.” This speaks of the immortality of heaven that awaits every believer. For it’s inside New Jerusalem (the eternal city of the saints) that the tree of life will yield its fruit throughout eternity (Rev.22:2).

Historically: The church at Ephesus began about 50 AD by what is believed to have been the efforts of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18). In about 52 AD Paul established a ministry there that lasted nearly 3 years, followed by Timothy, and eventually (at least according to some traditions) John himself, following his exile on Patmos. Ephesus was the largest city in the province of Asia, having had perhaps a population of 300,000 people. It was also significant for its religion, including the Temple of Diana (ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Sometime before the first millennium, however, the city lost importance, decreased in population, and saw many of her sculptured stones (falling to ruins) carted off to Italy. In 1308 the Turks took possession of what little remained of the city and either deported or murdered its remaining inhabitants. Today, as a result perpetual river flooding, the ruins of the city lie in a swamp, and only the small nearby Turkish town of Ayasaluk represents her.


The Suffering Church

Due to relentless attacks brought upon them by local Jews, this message to Smyrna is one of comfort, and the first of just two churches Jesus has only praise for.

2:8-9 "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write, 'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. "

Seemingly put under heavy duress by a malignant group of blasphemous Jews, Smyrna is addressed during a time they were suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.

With full knowledge of the congregation’s present and future suffering and persecution, however, Jesus seeks to comfort them. By His title, “the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life”, He virtually joins with them in their affliction. As the Living Savior, who became dead but lived again (having suffered death, yet triumphed over it); this afflicted congregation was being assured that in Jesus they too would pass through suffering and death and into an everlasting joy in the world to come.

Although the Smyrna church was destitute, powerless, and duly crushed under the heel of persecution, Jesus tells them, “I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich).” Smyrna was rich, in spite of their condition, because they stayed true to God and thus found favor with Him. One’s true faith is the only true riches, and those works accomplished to the glory of Christ (and subsequently stored in heaven) are the only true treasure (Matt.6:19-21).

By His statement, “and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”, Jesus identifies the source of the church’s persecution. Seemingly, these were those with Jewish extraction and thus considered themselves Jews, but because of their bitter opposition to Christ and His people, not a true Jew in the eyes of God (see Rom.2:28, 29). Because they were serving Satan and not God by persecuting the Church, Jesus refers to them as the “synagogue of Satan”.

2:10 "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.

Allow me to set up my comments to this passage with the following fictitious letter we will imagine has been posted as a church bulletin at Smyrna.
Over the last several months, our impoverished fellowship has come under brutal attack by the Jews in Smyrna. When we gather, they are at our doors screaming profanities as we make our way in. During our service, they pound relentlessly on the walls and doors to disrupt us. As we depart, we get spit on, manhandled, or pelted by stones. As a result, many new believers are dropping out, and fewer unbelievers come to visit. Moreover, those of us who remain are finding it difficult not to feed upon each other’s fears and apprehensions.

Because we have been taught that God has jurisdiction over our enemies and always stands ready to deliver His people, we have been praying for God’s intervention. We can report a miracle! We are told that John the Apostle had a spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ during his imprisonment and has sent a letter personally addressed to us by our Lord. So we will gather this evening and read the letter, and tonight learn what God has in store for us. Let us remain hopeful that our deliverance is near.
Okay, now imagine yourself within the congregation as the pastor reads this actual letter addressed to Smyrna. It speaks nothing of deliverance, only of an impending persecution even more terrible than before. Would your heart sink? I’m going to suggest that many hearts in Smyrna sunk. They were about to be severely tested, and they would have to trust God through all of it. (Compare—Jas.1:2-3).

“…and you will have tribulation ten days.” This is taken by some commentators to mean that Smyrna’s trial would be “frequent" as in "day after day". Others take it as “short lived" as in a literal period of just ten days. Yes, trials can be frequent. James and Peter both speak of having endured “various trials” (Jas.1:2; I Peter 1:6). It's also true that trials are really just short lived. As Paul notes, when compared to the eternal benefits we derive from them, trials are “but for a moment” (2 Cor.4:17). In either case, trials are inevitable. The Bible says, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim.3:17).

It should be mentioned, however, that the Bible does record one other incident where the servants of God were tested for ten days. According to the prophet Daniel, he, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego endured a fast for a period of ten days (Dan.1:12) that caused them to be exalted in the eyes and the court of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan.1:14-21). Though the testing of Daniel was measurably less severe then what was about to befall Smyrna, perhaps its underlying truth spoke to and comforted the congregation. That God can be trusted. He will see us through the trial, and we will become better because of the trial.

2:11 "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death." '

Smyrna is one of just two churches that are not admonished (the other is Philadelphia), so Jesus concludes on the high note of two promises.

To the faithful, Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This speaks of the reward that will be given to those who, out of deep love for Christ, endure temptation (Jas.1:12). And to the redeemed, Jesus says, “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” This speaks of eternal life. For the "second death" speaks of being cast into the lake of fire, which is the eternal abode of the unsaved (Rev.20:14). The redeemed will not be hurt by this death.

Historically: Known for its schools of science and medicine, as well as its elaborate buildings, the city of Smyrna (during Roman times) was considered the most brilliant city in Asia Minor. Although the origin of the church at Smyrna is uncertain, it is known that Polycarp (the first Bishop of the church) did suffer martyrdom in 166 AD (due in large part to the Jews). It is the only remaining city of these addressed in Revelation, and today (in Turkey) is known as Izmir.

The Carnal Church

This letter to the church at Pergamos is a rebuke for opening its doors to ungodly men with carnal doctrines.

2:12-13 "And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write, 'These things says He who has the sharp two-edged sword: I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. And you hold fast to My name, and did not deny My faith even in the days in which Antipas was My faithful martyr, who was killed among you where Satan dwells.

The “sharp two-edged sword” Jesus holds is the Word (Heb.4:12). By His use of the symbol here, Jesus is letting the pastors know that He has used His Word of truth to cut into their doctrinal heart, and in the light of holy doctrine has carefully examined them.

As a result, Jesus acknowledges the church's courage to hold fast to His name; recognizing that they had suffered martyrdom because they were dwelling in a demonic stronghold "where Satan's throne is". Moreover, to this church's credit, though apparently surrounded by temples and shrines and innumerable idols in the darkest center of pagan abominations, Jesus commends them for keeping the idols out of the church.

2:14-15 "But I have a few things against you, because you have those who hold to the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality. Thus you also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.

With the same two-edged sword by which He exposed all that was good and commendable, Jesus also uncovers that which He finds deplorable. In spite of all their success to keep the idols out, Pergamos had failed miserably to keep the ungodly doctrines of the idol worshipers out.

The first doctrine Jesus identifies is "…the doctrine of Balaam".

According to the Biblical record, Balaam was a soothsayer (Josh.13:22) with some knowledge of God, though Scripture never refers to him as a prophet. Because of his fame, Balaam was offered a huge sum of money by Balaak the king of Moab to use his powers of divination to help Balaak defeat Israel (Num.22:5-7). Though warned by God to speak only the words God gave him to speak (Num.22:35), the magician's wanton greed for reward and honor drove him to ignore God and align himself with the heathen king instead. As a result, the nation of Israel was introduced to both the idolatry and fornication that eventually caused her to stumble into depravity (Num.31:16). And thus, it was with Pergamos. The church allowed insincere (perhaps greedy) teachers to introduce worldly doctrines that caused many in the congregation to stumble into carnality (perhaps out of greed).

The second doctrine Jesus identifies is “…the doctrine of the Nicolaitans." This also surrounds the practice of idols and idolatrous worship, and at the same time might include a form of tyrannical lordship over the church (see notes—Rev.2:6).

2:16 'Repent, or else I will come to you quickly and will fight against them with the sword of My mouth.

This serious admonition to "repent, or else" is intended to correct the congregation for tolerating the false doctrines and neglecting to rebuke the corrupt teachers. Jesus makes it an ultimatum, either the church see to it that the ungodly tolerance stop and judgment be brought against the false doctrines and teachers or He would intervene and make war against the corrupt members Himself.

It’s not clear how our Lord’s intervention would play out, yet it's safe to say that any congregation upon which Jesus makes a declaration to fight against its teachers wouldn't be a pleasant experience. If I were to speculate, the outcome would be an outbreak of dissension between the leadership and faithful members resulting in the cutting off of the wrong doers but leaving the faithful hurt and the surrounding community confused. In other words, what the church could have done by taking corrective action with perhaps little incident, would become a full-scale confrontation leading to broken hearts and broken relationships.

For this reason, dear ones, we must always be on watch for false doctrine; always be ready to rebuke it before it can germinate; and always remain mindful that it can spring up at anytime inside any congregation (see—2 Tim.4:3-5).

2:17 "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give some of the hidden manna to eat. And I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except him who receives it." '

"I will some of the hidden manna to eat.” This speaks of the miraculous provision of God in the person of Jesus Christ Who is "the living bread”; a promise that we shall partake of Christ and thereby "shall live forever" (John 6:51). "And I will give him a white stone…" The white "stone" (Gr. psephos) means white “pebble” and alludes to a marble-sized stone once used in some cultures to cast a ballot. Wherein the white stone meant approval and a black stone meant disapproval, the thought is that we won’t be “blackballed” from heaven, but instead will receive a white stone of “approval” bearing a name Jesus has secretly chosen for us.

Historically: In its early history Pergamos stood as an illustrious symbol of Greek dominance. It included a 200,000 volume library (second only to the Egyptians), a medical center, and a trio of renowned temples situated on the top of a high and lofty hill behind the city. In the days of Rome it became the capital of the Roman province of Asia, and was the first city in Asia to erect a temple (AD 29) for the worship of the Roman Emperor. Today Pergamos lies in ruins about 15 miles from the Aegean Sea in Turkey.

The Idolatrous Church

In this letter, Jesus takes all the symbols of judgment and issues a strong rebuke against those in the church who corrupt true religion and seduce others from the truth.

2:18-19 "And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, 'These things says the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and His feet like fine brass: I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first.

This is the first and only time in Revelation that Jesus calls Himself the Son of God; His supreme title as Deity. Seemingly, Jesus had purposed it especially for Thyatira because it is the only church given to idolatry. The disdain of which is clearly evidenced by the two strong symbols Jesus associates with His name. “Eyes like a flame of fire” and “feet like fine brass” both speak of judgment.

As always, our Lord Jesus first acknowledges the good works of the congregation. That they had grown, and were more impressive than works accomplished earlier, when the church was first established.

And herein is a lesson for us, considering the strong rebuke about to come. That works alone are not a guarantee that we are in a right relationship with Almighty God.

2:20 “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and beguile My servants to commit sexual immorality and to eat things sacrificed to idols.

The exact identity of this beguiling prophetess called “that woman Jezebel” is not known. In fact, Jezebel might not have been her surname. According to Scripture the name Jezebel virtually became a by-word for all that was abominable following the ancient Queens' corruption of Israel with idols and pagan practices (2 Kings 9:22; 1 Kings 16:31; 21:25,26). It’s quite possible that Jesus was merely pin pointing a particular female member of the congregation who had been corrupting the church in the manner of Jezebel, and not necessarily identifying her by name.

Nonetheless, she’s a corrupt and dangerous figure who had slithered into the church disguised as a prophetess in order to beguile the congregation into committing themselves to idolatry and sexual immorality (probably according to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans).

2:21-23 'And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation unless they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death. And all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works.

We might conclude that this woman was no newcomer to the church for she had "time to repent". Seemingly, she had been around for a while under the watchful eye of Jesus, and could have turned away from her evil practice. Because she didn't, Jesus issues this decree: “Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed.”

Although speculative, this might allude to an untimely death. Perhaps, because of her unrepentant sin, God made a determination to strike this woman down and kill her as He did the ancient Jezebel (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:30-37); which is also consistent with New Testament teaching (see—I Cor.11:27-30).

“And those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation unless they repent of their deeds. And I will kill her children with death.” This somewhat different admonition to the converts of Jezebel (taken to mean “her children”) has led some commentators to see this judgment finding its ultimate fulfillment in the future. Whereas, Jezebel is cast into a sickbed, which might be an untimely death, her converts are first cast into great tribulation, and without repentance then to certain death.

Let’s consider it.

The phrase “into great tribulation” might refer to the period Jesus spoke of as a time of “great tribulation” (Matt.24:21), or the second half of what we commonly call the Tribulation. If so, then it would suggest that a line of converts dating back to Jezebel do exist in our day, will not be raptured, and will enter the Tribulation; ultimately to endure its suffering, and finally death unless they repent.

I personally agree with this idea because I believe all seven of the congregations addressed by Jesus in this Book are representative of the Church today, and thus are recipients of His admonition. In other words, as surely as we have congregations that have left their first love not unlike Ephesus; congregations that are being persecuted not unlike Smyrna; congregations that are carnally minded not unlike Pergamos; there are congregations with idols not unlike Thyatira.

Okay, but who are these children of Jezebel? I see it as the Roman Catholic Church. It has idols, teaches unsound doctrine, and yet consists of born again believers, as there were in Thyatira (note the next verse). I am not suggesting that a Catholic is evil. "For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Romans 10:13), regardless of church affiliation. But I do believe that Catholicism, in practice, beguiles members with its idols, rituals, and false doctrines, and thereby harbors "children of Jezebel" trusting in those things as God's revelation without knowledge that "unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3).

2:24-25 'But to you I say, and to the rest in Thyatira, as many as do not have this doctrine, and who have not known the depths of Satan, as they call them, I will put on you no other burden. But hold fast what you have till I come.

Any doctrine that perverts the gospel of Christ is an abominable doctrine from "the depths of Satan.” For it's the desire of Satan to subvert truth.

Jesus lays no further burden those in the congregation not corrupted by Jezebel, but a command to “hold fast.” Theirs is not a sentence of tribulation and death, but cautionary warning not to let others wrest the truth away from them.

2:26-29 'And he who overcomes and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations--'He shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the potter's vessels shall be broken to pieces'--as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches." '

“…to him I will give power over the nations--'He shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the potter's vessels shall be broken to pieces'—as I have also received from My Father." This could refer to the future power and dominion we share with Christ during the millennium, when His kingdom is established on earth, and He triumphantly reigns over the nations; or perhaps to a heavenly position, when we sit down with Christ on His throne of judgment and join with Him in condemning the ungodly (1Cor.6:2). Either way, the Father has given the Son the nations as an “inheritance,” and the ends of the earth as a “possession,” and He will rule with a scepter of iron, and break the ungodly nations into pieces like a potter's vessel (Ps.2:7-9).

"And I will give him the morning star." At the very least we can take this to mean that Christ, Who is "the bright and morning star" (Rev.22:16), will one day present Himself to us, and we shall behold His face (Rev.22:4). Interestingly, however, it might also indicate that we will one day be given full knowledge concerning God. That at the appearance of Christ darkness will fade, and we will see all things in the light of His glory; and as we behold Jesus all of the mysteries of God will be revealed to us, and all of our questions will be answered (check—2 Peter 1:19).

Historically: Though never a large city of any political importance, Thyatira did thrive as a manufacturing and commercial center during New Testament times. Lydia (the first convert of Paul at Philippi) is mentioned as "a seller of purple fabrics" from Thyatira. Nothing of the ancient city can be seen today, but the modern city of Akhisar in Turkey marks its ancient site.

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