LETTERS FROM CHRIST TO HIS CHURCHES
Over a period of seven weeks I had the privilege of preaching through the seven letters Christ sent to the seven different churches in the book of Revelation. It was a tremendously refreshing experience to learn about Jesus Christ’s great care for the purity, holiness and faithfulness of His church.
Many would affirm the priority and importance of the universal church that is made up of all believers and is not necessarily confined to those who meet together for worship on a Sunday. However, in these letters we also learn about the importance of the local church that meets together at a particular locale for fellowship and worship.
It may also help to read my notes on the introduction to the book of Revelation here. As you prepare to read through these notes, I’d encourage you to read the actual letters in Revelation 2-3 along with these notes. I trust you find these summaries encouraging and helpful.
YOU HAVE LEFT YOUR FIRST LOVE!
Jesus writes the first letter to the church in Ephesus (2:1). He introduces Himself as the one who walks in the midst of His church, hereby affirming His abiding presence with His church (1:20, 2:1; Matthew 28:20). Where Christ’s church gathers, He gathers with them as well (Matt. 18:20). So, when we gather together as a church we sing correctly about Christ’s presence with us when we sing: “I believe You are here now, standing in our midst, here with the power to heal now and the grace to forgive”.
This is why Jesus is able to tell them that He knows their deeds (2:2). He commends them for their labor, perseverance and discernment (2:2-3). We must then be aware that the most important person in a church service is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is there walking in the midst of His church and therefore what we do, how we serve, our worship, fellowship and preaching is done most importantly for His pleasure. The Lord Jesus is also not a mere bystander indiscriminately approving of every thing we do, rather He is a watchful observer unto whom everything ought to be done (Col. 1:16-18) and He distinguishes true worship and service from that which is merely put on.
Therefore, even though He knows their deeds of service He is also able to charge the church of having lost their first love (2:3). Their affection, love and devotion for Christ had grown cold despite of their strenuous labor, perseverance and discernment. We learn here that it is possible to be busy and active for Christ without necessarily loving Christ. Jesus will not accept labor without love, deed without devotion and hard-work without heart-work!
Jesus calls them to remember from where they have fallen (2:5). Love for Christ is sustained in remembering what He has done for us; that He has saved us and that He has given us every spiritual blessing in Himself ( Ephesians 1:3, 2 Peter. 1:3-9). Christ calls them to repent, because failure to love God is disobedience (Matthew 22:37-38). Jesus Christ is God and therefore is worthy of our love and highest affections and devotion. He then also calls them to do the deeds they did at first (2:5). Jesus’ instruction to them can be summarized in the following infinitives: to remember, to repent and to return to do those deeds which fueled their love for Him.
There are serious consequences for not heeding Christ’s instructions given here. He threatens to take away their light, effectiveness, influence and witness if they do not love Him (2:5). For what is a church that does not love Christ or a body that does not love its head? But there are also great promises here to the one who overcomes, namely: participation, fellowship and satisfaction in the new heavens and new earth to come (2:7, Revelation 21-22).
BE FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH!
The second letter is addressed to the church in Smyrna. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who stands over time and the One who stands over life and death (2:8). He does this to affirm this persecuted church who endured great affliction on account of their faith in Him (2:9). Death was a real and present danger for these believers and it is comforting for them to know that the One who is writing to them is “the first and the last, who died and came to life” (2:8). The church was facing opposition from certain Jews hostile towards them, from Roman authorities quick to imprison them and of course from Satan who stood behind all the opposition (2:9-10).
Jesus warns them of more suffering to come (2:10). Here we see a striking difference between the message of Christ and the message of today’s prosperity preachers. Jesus gives the church a word and the word is “turn to your neighbor and say, more suffering is coming“. However, and importantly the Lord who warns them of more suffering also commands them not to fear. We learn that suffering is not uncommon for the Christian or inconsistent with a faithful Christian life. In fact, the Apostle Paul taught that “… all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). No wonder we see in this letter that Jesus has no complaints or charges against this church and it is worth noting that those who suffer well rarely incur the displeasure of Christ.
Jesus commands them: “do not fear” (2:10). While He was on earth Jesus also redirected the fears of the people away from those with temporary authority to Him who has eternal and supreme authority to reward and to judge (Luke 12:4-5). In comparison to what Christ promises those who are faithful (the crown of life – 2:10-11), suffering and death appear brief and worthwhile obstacles (Philippians 1:21).
Church history has left us with a remarkable testimony of one particular elder who was faithful unto death. Polycarp, disciple of John and elder of the church in Smyrna, when he refused to burn incense to the emperor and proclaim him lord, was sentenced to be burnt alive for his true Lord. When given one last opportunity to deny Jesus, Polycarp answered: “Eighty-six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
DO NOT COMPROMISE!
Jesus sends the third letter to the church in Pergamum. He points out the deep rooted idolatry and false worship happening in Pergamum when He describes the place the church dwells in as a place where “Satan’s throne” is (2:13). In addition to this, the church faced the threat of false teaching which sought to compromise the moral and doctrinal purity of the church (2:14-15).
This makes Christ’s description of Himself all the more telling, as He sets Himself forth as the “One who has the double edge sword” (2:12). In the midst of the many false ideologies and false doctrines in Pergamum, Jesus comes as the One who has the more effective word that cuts both to sever and to save. The world with all its wisdom and words along with false religious ideologies is no match for the One who has the double edged sword!
The church is commended by Christ for its faithful witness and Jesus particularly singles out one of the members, Antipas, “My faithful one, who was killed among you” (2:13). However, even though their faithfulness in the face of persecution was commendable their susceptibility to false teaching was not.
Christ charges them of holding to false teaching that had led them to commit acts of idolatry and immorality (2:14-15). The grave danger of false teaching is that it does not, nor can it promote holiness, purity and moral integrity (John 17:3). False teaching promotes a very low view of sanctification. Christ commands them to repent or else He is coming to make war against the defectors, false teachers and idolaters with the sword of his mouth i.e. with His word which cuts to sever and condemn (2:16).
Jesus leaves the church with an amazing promise that he who overcomes will be given hidden manna, in other words, He promises provision and satisfaction that this world cannot see or conceive (2:17). He also promises the one who overcomes a white stone, which was typically given to the winning athlete as admission to enter the great award banquets. So also Christ promises those who do not compromise, and who do not participate in the idolatrous feasts of this world unabated entrance into the great banquet at His coming (2:17).
I AM HE WHO SEARCHES THE HEARTS AND MINDS!
The fourth letter from Christ was sent to the church in Thyatira. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who sees all things and with feet like burnish bonze will trample down every wicked thing (2:18).
The church is commended for its deeds, love, faith, service and perseverance (2:19). Yet the Christ who “has eyes like a flame of fire” is able to see through all these things that there was a deadly cancer eating away at the soul of the church. He charges them of entertaining a particular false teacher in the vein of the Old Testament woman Jezebel, who was polluting and corrupting many in the church (2:20). It is of importance here to note that Jesus sees all things and searches not only deeds, works and services but also hearts, minds and lives!
He commands them to repent and we are once again reminded, as with all the other churches, of Christ’s great concern for the purity of His body. He threatens great consequences to those who do not repent, yet at the same time He offers great mercy even to those leading others astray (2:21).
Christ also finds some in the church to have been faithful and who have not followed the error and immorality of the rest (2:24). So, He instructs them to hold onto what they have, namely the truth which had kept them pure (2:25).
He ends the letter by promising those who overcome authority to rule with Him in His coming kingdom (2:26, Revelation 20:4-6, Psalm 2:5-6) as well a share in the full glory and presence of Christ, Himself (2:28). We learn that sin never pays well but obedience, faithfulness and repentance assures us of great present and even greater future blessings.
WAKE UP, YOU’RE DEAD!
Jesus sends the fifth letter to the church in Sardis. He introduces Himself as the one who has the seven Spirits of God (the Holy Spirit) and the seven stars (the leaders of the churches – Revelation 1:20, 3:1).
Jesus begins by informing the church that though they appear to be alive in name, they are actually quite dead in spirit (3:1). And it is fitting that Christ described Himself as the one who has the Holy Spirit and who holds the leaders of the churches. For without the Spirit and Christ-gifted-men the church is nothing but dead. The main cause for their spiritual deadness seems to be impurity within and among the believers as seen in the reference to soiled garments (3:4) Impurity had killed the church!
Therefore Christ now commands them to strengthen that which is alive, remember the word they were taught and repent from the sin they are entangled in (3:2-3). In such a deep spiritual crises what was needed was not any new or extravagant experience or revelation but for them to remember the word they were taught and repent from their sins. The gospel and repentance is still the most effective cure for any disease that eats away at the life of a church.
Jesus commends those who have not partook of whatever impurity was taking place and described them as those who “have not soiled their garments” (3:4). This is most likely a reference to the Roman triumphal parade where only those with white garments (unsoiled) were allowed to join the parade. Likewise, only those who remain pure and holy will see God (Hebrews 12:14, 1 John 3:2-3).
Christ ends the letter by promising those who overcome the assurance that their names will not be removed from the book of life (3:5). This does not imply that some names can be removed but that those whose names are in it will not be removed.
I WILL KEEP YOU FROM THE HOUR OF TESTING!
The second last letter Jesus sent was to the church in Philadelphia. This church along with Smyrna received no rebuke from Jesus and Philadelphia in particular is known as the faithful church. Jesus introduces Himself here as the Holy One and the True One and in these two references we immediately reflect on the Old Testament names for Yahweh (3:7).
Jesus is obviously making Himself equal with Yahweh which will become very relevant as there were Jews causing this particular church great trouble (3:9). Jesus also describes Himself as the one who has the key of David (keys to the kingdom) and He determines who enters and who does not (3:7). This description of Christ would prove relevant in light of the possibility that the church was enduring great trouble from unbelieving Jews who took great pride in their ethnic heritage as the special people of God (3:9). Jesus Christ, the True and Holy God who has the keys to the eternal kingdom promised to David (2 Samuel 7:12-13) identifies with the church and not these unbelieving Jews of the synagogue of Satan!
As a result of their faithfulness, Jesus assures them an open door into the kingdom which no one can shut. He also assures them that they will be kept out of the coming tribulation period (3:10, Revelation 6-18). The coming wrath to be unleashed on this world is not for the church but for an unbelieving world, as well for the purification of the Jews (Daniel 9:24-27). In the context of the coming tribulation, Paul taught that “…God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
Christ furthermore encourages the church to continue to hold fast as He is coming quickly, which is the same as saying He will keep them out of the coming hour of trial. The way He will do that is by coming quickly (1 Thess. 4:17). He finally promises that he who overcomes will be forever fixed and settled in the New Jerusalem (3:12, Revelation 21:2)
I WILL SPIT YOU OUT OF MY MOUTH!
The final letter is sent to the church in Laodicea. Laodicea stands in stark contrast to Philadelphia – the latter Christ promises to keep (3:10) the former Christ threatens to spit out (3:16). Jesus introduces Himself as the “Amen” to every word and promise of God, as the “faithful witness” to the character and work of God and as the beginning and source of creation itself (3:14). Essentially Christ is the Lord over all things which includes His church (3:14). This position of Christ should cause the church in Laodicea to be very concerned considering that Christ is threatening to spit them out (3:16).
According to Jesus, their deeds were unacceptable and useless: He says they are neither hot nor cold and He wished they were hot or cold, yet they are lukewarm (2:15). A bit of historical background would help shed light on what Christ means here. Laodicea was situated between two cities, Hierapolis (a city known for its hot springs used for medicinal purposes) and Colosse (a city known for its cold refreshing water). Laodicea however, was known for having the foulest water in the Roman Empire.
Naturally they were useless, they had neither hot springs nor cold refreshing water and that which is true of them naturally was also true of them spiritually. That is why Christ threatens to spit them out as that is exactly what one does to foul, unacceptable and useless water.
It appears this spiritual condition was brought about by their preoccupation with earthly riches (Laodicea was a rich city), fine clothing (they had a special breed of sheep that produces sort-after wool) and their pride and arrogance (3:17). Laodicea was also famous for an eye salve. Yet Christ’s indictment of them is that they were “wretched, miserable, poor, naked and blind” (3:17). What we think of ourselves is not necessarily what Christ thinks of us. From them we also learn that it is not so much about what we have in our lives but whom (Christ) we have in our lives.
Christ calls them to repentance (3:18-19). We have never drifted too far from Christ for true repentance to lead us back safely and securely! Out of love for them Christ comes knocking on their door, seeking to fellowship and to satisfy the one who opens up (3:20).
The promise Christ gives to the one who overcomes is absolutely staggering (3:21). We know the Father sits on His throne, and we know Christ is seated on a throne at His right hand. However, Christ promises the one who overcomes to sit down with Him on His throne (3:21-22, Revelation 4:4). This is how Christ ends off the final letter with a promise of great and high reward to the one who remains faithful and overcomes!
When we open to book of Revelation we expect to find all sorts of eschatological incidences and apocalyptic events. While the book certainly contains these elements we must not forget it was written to local churches. The book of Revelation, surprisingly, contains some of the riches ecclesiological teachings with a sharp focus on Christ’s sanctifying care for the purity and faithfulness of His church in the world! Also, we learn that the promises given to the church are too great to give up for fleeting comforts and pleasures of this world, especially given that Jesus Christ Himself, is the Amen and surety to every promise made by God.