Comments to the churches: These comments relate to the seven churches that existed in Asia Minor in the first century. In accordance with Hebrew scripture, symbolism is used, but the comments relate to particular issues that God was speaking to at that time, in the actual churches being addressed. It is erroneous to treat these comments as allegorical, as if the churches are only symbolic themselves.
TO THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS
Not much is known about the historical details behind some of the comments to the seven churches. The church is commended for its practice of rejecting false gospels. This could be a reference to the Nicolaitans, mentioned in subsequent sentences. The church is commended for its
faithfulness, its steadfastness and for its endurance. But it is pulled up for the loss if it’s ‘first love.’ No details are given for what this means, what this first love is a reference to. My guess is that it refers to a lack of cross bearing-witness to sinners and to those outside. They were good at pointing at what was wrong, but not at loving those who were wrong, inviting them into repentance and community, through self-giving service and witness. We often see the same in our lives today; when our ‘orthodoxy’ takes on a critical harshness, or even an arrogance against others, rather than the cross-bearing love of Christ towards the world.
‘I will come and remove the candle stick from your midst.’ This means the church would lose its genuine living witness to Christ, and just become like a museum of a former witness. This is spoken of in terms of an active judgement of Christ, but it means that if we continue living in a way that spurns the self-giving witness of the Spirit of God, we will push him out of our place. Judgement is what we do to ourselves when we reject the love of God.
‘To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ Conquer, as in to overcome the indulgences of our flesh, not just the Nicolaitan indulgences, but the self-righteous indulgences, in which we withdraw love from others. ‘The tree of life in the paradise of God,’ refers to the resurrection of our bodies and new creation, seen at the end of the book of Revelation.
We don’t know anything about this except for what Revelation says. There are theories in church history, but they are not backed by real evidence. It may refer to a heresy claiming that since the law of Moses was abrogated, then ‘all things are lawful,’ meaning full indulgence in any desire. Paul wrote about this, claiming that we are brought into bondage by what controls us, and what we sow we will reap, whether good or corruption. The heresy of the Nicolaitans could have been something to do with this gnostic error. One theory suggests that deacon Nicolaus of Acts 6 was the founder of this heresy, but there is no concrete evidence for this.
There is another theory that suggests that the name Nicolaus means to ‘conquer the people’ and this refers to a movement in the church where the clergy began to overpower the laity. But, again, there is no concrete evidence for this movement, unless we over symbolise the text, and apply it by our imagination to the later Roman Catholic church age. But this wouldn’t be using the symbolism in Revelation in its Hebrew intention, to apply it concretely to events at the time Revelation was written. The text should not be over symbolised, in a gnostic kind of interpretation.
TO THE CHURCH AT SMYRNA
The passage concerning the church at Smyrna seems to identify the date of Revelation with the time prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which occurred in AD 70. In the wider region of Smyrna there was a large Jewish diaspora. This proved to be a considerable problem to the early churches, as we saw in Acts and in all Paul’s letters. There was a strong resentment about the gentiles coming to faith on an equal basis and the threat this also posed to the wealth Jerusalem made through its religious trade.
Believers were cut off from the wealth of Jerusalem and may have been impoverished as a result.
The text seems to address this persecution against the church as coming from the false Jews, which would have meant those who believed they had a monopoly on God, but who were wrong, because they rejected God’s plan in Christ. They were instead of the adversary, Satan, who tried to stamp out the early church.
Their ability to throw believers into prison also highlights the relationship Jerusalem had with the Roman power of the day.
Jerusalem used Rome to achieve its goals, from the crucifixion of Christ, to the persecution of believers. We see this happening several times with Paul in Acts, as Jews incited Roman authorities against him. Later, Revelation calls this the false Prophet (Jerusalem) riding on the back of the beast (Rome).
It is unlikely that such a strong persecution from Jerusalem against the church would have continued to occur after AD 70, when Jerusalem’s influence would have significantly diminished.
Jerusalem no longer had the same relationship with Rome at that time, nor the power to persecute the church, as before.
We also note the pacifism of the early church. Though they were repeatedly persecuted, there is no hint in Revelation, nor in Acts, or in any of Paul’s letters, that any kind of violent defence was organised among the believers.
A point of interest in this passage is that some believers would be imprisoned for 10 days. This raises the question about whether numbers in Revelation were literal, or symbolic. “Seven” was used for the heads of the beast, which seem clearly to point to the kings of Rome, as a literal number. However, there is also a symbolic point being made by using “seven:” themes we will later discuss.
We will also see that the persecution of Nero lasted against the church for 1,260 days and the siege against Jerusalem for 3 & ½ years. These seem to corelate precisely with the history of the time.
There were 144,000 believers from Israel and a 1,000-year reign of Christ. These were symbolic numbers, that related to the historical events at the time, but not in a literal manner. In Daniel 9, he speaks of 70 x 7 years, which some in the days of the early church took literally for 490 years, when the Messiah’s kingdom would be set up. But this number was also symbolic for the Jubilee of God, in renewing humanity and creation through the gospel. It seems that in the Jewish mind of that time, numbers in prophetic literature could have a literal sense, and/ or a symbolic meaning.
“He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.” This will be discussed later as we continue through Revelation.
TO THE CHURCH AT PERGAMUM
According to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Antipas was martyred in Pergamum during the reign of Nero, AD 54-68. The tradition holds that people in Pergamum were no longer sacrificing to the idols, which was a threat to the social and economic order of Rome in the region.
The manna was probably a reference to the provision of real riches God was giving the believers, in contrast to the loss they suffered in the society of that day. It was hidden manna, in the sense that the self-centred populations would not be able to understand what true riches were.
The white stone may have been a reference to the stones on the breastplate of the priests in the Old Testament, upon which were written the names of the tribes of Israel. This would then have been a reference to the new creation, the true priesthood, who rule the world in the image of God, in the Adamic commission restored. For each church mentioned so far, the passage ends with a reference to the new creation, for those who overcome.
The reference to Balaam was likely to those in the church who compromised with the idols of the city, which were a main part of the Roman rule over the people. They would attend the Roman pagan festivals, and as they offered sacrifice to idols, they would eat at those festivals, which included sexually immoral acts. This is distinct from Paul, in Corinthians, who stated that such food was fine, if bought in the market place. In that case, the believer was not indulging in the pagan festivals. Paul denied the concept of demonic possession of the food.
This may shed some additional light on the conflict of the Jews with the Christians. The Jews had exemption from Rome concerning offering sacrifice in pagan temples. Without this exemption, the death penalty applied to defaulters. Now that gentiles were claiming to be full Jews through faith in Christ alone, this may have jeopardised Jewish freedoms and endangered their lives before Rome. The Jews would have been eager to claim that Christians had no part with them, least the Jews lose their exemption status from the pagan festivals.
This strikes at the heart of the gospel: being willing to give up our freedoms to stand with the persecuted, as Jesus did in his own death for us. This is the freedom Paul gave up, as a Jew, to eat with the gentiles, as equal brothers in Christ. This he did to follow Christ, (Philippians 2:5-11, 3:10)
The reference to the Nicolaitans was responded to above, in the passage on the church at Ephesus.
The “throne of satan,” considered by many scholars to be the Great Altar of Pergamum, now in a Berlin museum. It isn’t the purpose of Revelation for us to speculate about Berlin (or Europe) housing this altar today. The early church overcame the world through life change, and became the “priests,” transformers, of the places where they lived.
TO THE CHURCH AT THYATIRA
Once again, the problem at Thyatira seems pretty similar to that of Pergamum. The church was strong in faith, love and endurance, but to some extent the teaching of Jezebel was tolerated among some of the believers. This may have been a reference to a particular woman, who was a false prophet, but it also may have been a reference to a cult that Revelation termed “Jezebel.” Nevertheless, this teaching was rife through the Asia Minor area. Piecing the passages together, we can see that it was morally seductive, like Balaam, it was based on false theology, possibly heralded by someone called Nicolaus, and it was idolatrous, like Jezebel.
The basic tenor of the cult was to conform the church to the culture of the day, to ft in with the social expectations of others.
This culture was self-serving, and the church had been called to love, which is self-denying, or self-giving. To hold fast to the true culture of the kingdom of heaven, to have a renewing influence in the world, would take endurance in the face of persecution, for rejecting the morality of this world.
The issues we face today may be different, but similar in this sense: that which conforms the church to self-centredness and cuts off the transforming leaven of the cross within our lives and surroundings. This could relate to any matter, which may have nothing much else to do with the kinds of sins Revelation was dealing with in Asia Minor. So, we can’t say, “We are not associated with the sins of early Asia Minor,” if we don’t resist the selfishness of our own world in our own day. The judgements against those who follow the cult of Jezebel are strong. They depict the kinds of things that will come upon the people if they don’t repent. But these come about through their own actions, as Paul described judgement in Romans 2, as the fruit of the things that we sow.
Those who overcome, will rule the nations with a rod of iron. This designates the complete overthrow of evil in the world. But the means by which God’s kingdom achieves this overthrow isn’t through violence, but through the cross. The conquest of Jesus is frequently described using human warfare symbolism, but the means of this conquest was his self-giving cross, by which he defeated the enemy through an opposite action: of God’s love.
These kinds of symbols for the kingdom of God are throughout scripture. A good example is Paul’s use of the Roman conquest as a symbol for the cross of Christ. (Colossians 2:15) The church is to follow the same path for its final victory over sin.
The kingdom of God is not a culture of “conquest,” not in the human sense of that word. It proceeds by reconciliation, from the cross, and then progressing in our own relationships in the world.
From God reconciling his enemies on the cross, continuing through the church reconciling our enemies in the world.
TO THE CHURCH AT SARDIS
“Everyone may think you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up.
You have only a little strength left.”
It appears that the Sardis church had a reputation among Christians as a leading light. Revelation doesn’t say what this reputation was based upon. But the church didn’t have a good reputation with God. That is, it wasn’t careful to follow Jesus. This kind of comment usually means that we are strong in the things that look good to man, but weak in the genuine self-giving identity of the church. Again, like some of those in the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira, the church at Sardis probably fitted in too well with the local culture, in terms of the people not being willing to give up their privileges for the sake of the persecuted, poor and weaker members of the society. Consequently, they had a strength in the eyes of the world, but in God’s eyes this displayed a real weakness to follow what is right.
As God is building a new creation, which is based on the opposite values of this world, values which include serving the least of our communities, the church at Sardis was heading in the wrong direction. They were imaging the fallen world, the self-centred world of Rome, rather than the new world, which is fashioned by the values of the cross.
TO THE CHURCH AT PHILADELPHIA
This church was in the opposite position to the church at Sardis.
They were weak in worldly terms, but they built their relationships and community upon the values of Christ and his cross. They also reached out to their enemies with the reconciling love of God. They did this in their weakness, in the little ways that they were able, trusting in God alone for help.
The reference to “satan’s group” here is this time probably to some of the Jews in the region: the ones who claimed to be God’s people.
This just means “the adversary,” or those who persecuted the church. Because of the love, cross-shaped response of the church, God would make their enemies to be at peace with them. Because the church had chosen the way of the cross and not the way of worldly strength, God would help them. Their enemies would come and kneel before them and acknowledge that God loved them, but this would only happen because they see the genuine and consistent grace and love of God towards them in our lives. What an honour this is, of far more value that the honour of the world that Sardis went for. But this isn’t to be flaunted. Our response to our enemies kneeling before us is to wash their feet. Our response if to forgive, honour and receive them in service, just as God has done for us.
God would set before them an open door. This is the door we should look for, not the one the world opens to us for our worldly fame. Only if God opens our eyes can we see the path to this door.
This is the door that the world can’t shut. This is the only door we should seek. God would write on them his name, meaning he would take them as his own people, to build his own eternal city.
TO THE CHURCH AT LAODICEA
Another privileged city of the Roman Empire. When reading about these churches, the poem of “Christ’s humiliation” in Philippians 2:5-11 keeps ringing in my ears, and Paul’s response to follow, to count all his privileges as dung, for the sake of his caring fellowship with all others.
This is evidently what the church at Laodicea were not doing. They had accepted Christ in lukewarm-ness, without the care for others, without the gospel witness of Christ towards the outcast, resting in their privileges.
“You claim to be rich and successful and to have everything you need. But you don’t know how bad off you really are. You are pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.” This is the true estimation about the way the world is set up, even today, with those who are nestled in privilege and the rest of the world. God’s judgment is the same as Christ speaks here, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Our blindness is covered by our wellness, in worldly terms.
They spend their money on themselves. Rather, Christ says they should buy real wealth from him, including medicine that will open their eyes to their condition. They have averted the intent of the gospel, in renewing the nations. In buying from Christ, the currency isn’t money, but a torn heart. The eyes begin to open as we see ourselves through Christ’s humility, not through the eyes of those around us, our peers. This should be our earnest prayer, to give us hope of recovery.
“He stands at the door and knocks.” If we hear his correction it’s because he loves us, because he wants to share the future with us.
If we repent, he will come and eat with us: commune with us, share with us his heart, his passion, his cross and his new creation. We will know his ways and consider them important, and not the ways that others esteem. Esteem the carpenter of Nazareth (don’t be ashamed of the slave who died on a cross), rather than the respect of the world.
This is to “rule with God, to sit on his throne.” It isn’t a literal throne, but a loving and flourishing world. The meek rule over his new creation, in the way that is sustainable and fruitful. The builders-for-self destroy the creation and tread their enemies underfoot.