Continuing with additional observations since the last post…let the one who has ears, hear.
G.K. Beale suggests that we can understand the first letter by looking at Matthew 24:12-14. Actually, back up a verse: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt 24:11). This is what the Ephesian church was faithfully and rightly resisting. They had no tolerance for false prophets. And Jesus is pleased with this. But then the passage in Matthew continues, “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:12-14). The increasing lawlessness leading to love growing cold is contrasted with the increasing witness to all nations. The one who endures to the end is one whose love does not grow cold — is one who witnesses to the gospel. Remember that one of the central themes of John in Revelation is witnessing or testimony. The main image in this vision picturing this theme is the lampstand, the very thing that is mentioned in this letter to the Ephesian church. So when Jesus says, “you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4) it is a criticism of not letting their light shine — of not witnessing/testifying to Christ especially through their works to those who need to hear the good news. It would be like when a new Christian is on fire to share the good news but later the fire grows cold. Churches can follow the same pattern. Jesus says, “do the works you did at first” (Rev 2:5).
This is not the first time that the Lord has removed lampstands, as he threatens to do to the Ephesians. He had first done so with Israel — as prophesied by Zechariah 4. Israel had failed to testify to the nations. The Lord as the high priest forever can remove their lampstand from its place. But just as some heeded the prophets and others did not, just as some heeded Jesus as he lived among them and others did not, the same is possible — thus “he who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” A wording that reminds us of the prophets like Isaiah and that the Gospels use too.
In the second letter, the “synagogue of Satan” stands in obvious contrast to the true synagogue (gathering together of God’s people) of the church as at Smyrna. Apparently the Christians at Smyrna, Jews among them, were being persecuted and slandered by unbelieving Jews. The significance of the number ten is that it indicates fullness (as throughout Scripture). So these faithful Christians will be tested for ten days, for a full period of time, so full it may even be to the death. But the one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death. This, like the promise of the first letter of eating of the tree of life in the paradise of God, points us to the end of the book. The second death is mentioned in Rev 20:6, 20:14, 21:8. The tree of life is mentioned in Rev 22:2, 14, 19.
In the third letter, the church has the opposite problem as the first. In the first, they were keeping false prophets at bay but failed to witness to Christ. In this letter, they were witnessing to Christ but tolerating false prophets among them. In the first, the image was Christ among the lampstands. In the third, the image is Christ’s mouth with the sharp two-edged sword and he warns them if they do not repent then he will war against them with this sword. We have noted before that the sharp two-edged sword is His word. They are ignoring His word and compromising on issues of sex and eating food sacrificed to idols. To bring out that they have the opposite problem as the Ephesians, Jesus notes that there are some who hold to the Nicolaitans teachings among the church at Pergamum whereas the Ephesians do not tolerate those heretics. They are in a tough neighborhood — “where Satan’s throne is” or “where Satan dwells” (Rev 2:13). Roman government and pagan religion were all lumped into one there. Beale notes that they even had a temple dedicated to Ceasar worship. This is the reason they suffered such severe persecution. The state abused the power of the sword to punish them. Jesus will rightly use the power of his sword against them. Where the Ephesians focused inwardly and neglected the world, the church at Pergamum was focused outwardly but neglected discipline.
“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 practice sexual immorality” is an Old Testament reference to the book of Numbers. The text tells us, “While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of YHWH was kindled against Israel” (Num 25:1-3). Not surprisingly, “These, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against YHWH in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of YHWH” (Num 31:16). This incident shows us the danger of compromise with the Satanic religions. No doubt those who held to the teaching of Balaam were those who advocated engaging in Caesar worship and testifying to Christ. This was adultery against the Lord. And no doubt, the citation of Balaam was appropriate because the most common ways this compromise was evident was in eating food sacrificed to idols and sex with the temple prostitute. But the whoring is most likely primarily a reference to spiritual matters. And in contrast to these idolatrous feasts, Jesus promises “hidden manna” to the one who conquers. Manna also is prominent in the book of Numbers. Beale says that Num 11:7 was translated by the LXX as “rock crystal” — thus the manna is the color of a white rock crystal. The “white stone” is obviously a more difficult reference to understand.
In the fourth letter, Jesus mentions “Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols” (Rev 2:20). This is also an Old Testament reference, now to the book of Kings. Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab of Israel. She persecuted the true church and was resisted by the prophet Elijah. Jezebel has no place in the church. But the church of Thyatira was tolerating her. To be sure, they had not abandoned their first love, they did not stop doing the works they had done at first, but unlike the Ephesians their “latter works exceeded the first” (Rev 2:19). But again we see a problem of spiritual adultery. Some are being led astray. But this is not true of all in this church. Jesus can see the heart and he knows who has divided allegiances. Some “do not hold this teaching” and “have not learned the deep things of Satan” (Rev 2:24). They must not have the ability to discipline her because Jesus does not lay any such burden on them but simply tells them to hold fast until He rights the situation. Thus all of the imagery of judgment and Jesus as king. Comparing the previous letter with this one shows that Jezebel has more of a hold in the church at Thyatira than Balaam at Pergamum. But Jesus will give the one who conquers the morning star that Balaam prophesied.
In the fifth letter, the church has a reputation of being alive but is in fact dead (or at least they are close to it, perhaps some overstatement is being used based on the way the verses unfold). They have started but have not completed their works. This is a complacent church that is not witnessing, somewhat akin to the Ephesians. They need to be watchful. Beal calls their condition “spiritual lethargy.” Instead of seven lampstands, they have seven spirits of God. This contrast is to emphasize the life-giving resources that they have from God. A few walk with Christ in white. So there are some who are witnessing, but the church is largely complacent. And thus it is in danger of dying. But the one who conquers will wear white and “I will never blot his name out of the book of life” (the book mentioned at the end, Rev 13:8, 17:8, 20:12, 20:15, 21:27). White symbolizing purity. The priesthood of all belivers includes testimony to the world while remaining unsoiled by the world.
In the sixth letter, the church (like that of the second letter at Smyrna) is a healthy one at Philadelphia. The new Jerusalem coming down is an idea that points us to the end of the book too.
In the seventh letter, the church is neither hot nor cold. Christ is the faithful and true witness. This church at Laodicea is not. It would be good to be hot and it would be good to be cold, but not to be lukewarm. This does not mean then that they needed to have more fervor, because then to be cold would not be good. But it is something that the people of the region would understand. Beale, among others, notes that the waters of Hierapolis were hot and the waters of Colossae were cold, but by the time the water gets to Laodicea the waters are lukewarm. Hot springs are believed to have medicinal benefits, cold springs give you water to drink. Either are life-giving. But the Laodiceans were not being effective witnesses. They say, “I am rich.” Their witness was false. In fact, “they were poor, blind, and naked.” This even though Laodicea was known for making clothing, opthamology school, and banking. Having these things did not make them rich, seeing, and clothed. They should have been testifying to their need for Christ, not saying that they need nothing due to their prosperity.
So now that we have looked at the seven churches some more, which one does your church sound like? Which one sounds like your denomination? It is instructive that there are only two healthy churches among these seven representative churches. And never does Jesus tell the faithful to leave that church, but instead only warns them that He may leave if they do not repent and go about the work of witnessing to Him. These churches even remind us of Israel of old. So we are to be faithful witnesses no matter which one our church sounds most like and to work for the church to change in a more healthy direction.