A Look At Revelation 2-3
Special Delivery To The Churches
The postman from Patmos left on his route. He has seven letters in his pouch, all from an old man, the venerable apostle John. The route the postman followed was an approximate circle in Asia Minor (Turkey) encompassing some 450 miles. His first letter would be delivered to the church in Ephesus. From there he would make his way somewhat northward to Smyrna, and on to Pergamos. He would then circle east to Thyatira, around to Sardis and Philadelphia, down to Laodicea and most likely back to the seaport of Ephesus.
The letters were about the same length and almost identically organized. Each one talked about life in the church, but conveyed a different message ranging from warm commendation to harsh disapproval. Although the apostle John penned these letters, he was more like a secretary taking dictation. The letters were directly from “Jesus Christ ... the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5 NIV).
The One Dictating The Letters
Take a closer look at this impressive Person – “someone ‘like a Son of Man,’” with blazing countenance walking among seven large, golden lampstands (representing the seven churches addressed). See Him examine each one, at times nodding approval or shaking His head in disappointment. He is the ultimate evaluator of His churches!
In describing this awesome, glorified Son of Man, John made frequent use of simile: His eyes, for example, were like “blazing fire.” Like an x-ray, He could see through the veneer of each church to its inner structure, and discern its true condition. His appearance like a “Son of Man” (a favorite title of Jesus for Himself) suggested His authority as well as identity with those to whom He wrote. In effect He said, “I’ve been there. I understand your environment.”
Out of His mouth came a “sharp double-edged sword,” suggesting the Word of God as alive and powerful, able to cut incisively to the heart of a matter (Heb. 4:12). His feet were “like bronze glowing in a furnace.” As a man walking with feet of brass will not be very subtle in his footsteps, so the Lord’s reproof in these letters will be straightforward and to the point – even harsh at times.
This vision of the glorified Christ with blazing countenance so overwhelmed John that he “fell at His feet as though dead.” But then this One like the Son of Man placed His right hand on John. Before declaring His authority as “the First and the Last … the Living One” who holds “the keys of death and Hades,” He instructed John to start writing: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (2:17-18,11).
What He dictated to John was seven letters, all having a nearly identical outline. First there is the commission to write to the church addressed, followed by a character reference to one of the qualities of the One who is evaluating the lampstands. Next this Evaluator makes an observation beginning with the words “I know” followed by what He has personally observed about the particular church, its environment, its attitudes and its activities. He then, in most cases, gives a commendation, which is followed generally by a criticism or complaint. This is followed by a corrective – what the church should do to overcome the serious fault He has noted. Next He gives a warning of the consequence if they do not respond to the correction. Finally He gives a challenge and a promise to any who will listen and respond.1
These “evaluation reports” in format are as contemporary as any in management theory today. A good evaluation of an employee should include factual observation, commendation for good work, a clear statement of improvement needed, what to do to correct deficiencies, the probable outcome if deficiencies are not corrected and a challenge to do one’s best to improve.
In the remainder of this article, the letter to the church in Ephesus will be examined in some detail to serve as a model for studying the remaining letters. Although this article does not study all seven churches, it is hoped that the reader will continue to do so. The value of this study is gained by applying the evaluations to our own time and circumstances. While the word “church” is used in the text of the letters, we should think in terms of a local congregation.
The Letter To The Church At Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7)
We know a lot more about Ephesus than the other six churches. The temple to the goddess Artemis (Diana), one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, adorned this magnificent city. Its citizens were fanatically devoted to worshiping her, as were the many pilgrims who came each year, adding to the city’s wealth. Paul’s first missionary journey to this city is depicted in Acts 19. Later, his farewell message to the elders there (Acts 20) provides some clues as to the dangers it faced. Finally, his letter to the Ephesians gives considerable insight into the vitality of its spirit, activities and problems.
• Commission: While the meaning of “angel” (2:1) is open to interpretation, it suggests those who provide leadership and have responsibility in the local congregation. Clearly, the One dictating the letter has firsthand knowledge of the church He is evaluating. He walks among the lampstands and speaks with authority.2
• Character: Next Christ gives one of His own qualities, drawn from the list presented in the first chapter of Revelation, a quality that lends authority to His evaluation. In this letter He presents Himself as the One “who walks among the seven golden lampstands” and knows the church from firsthand observation.
• Observation: “I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.” He has been watching their activities, and observing how seriously they engaged in them. He speaks from personal observation, not from hearsay or conjecture.
• Commendation: He commends their hard work and acknowledges their vigilance in testing those who claim to be apostles. He then commends their perseverance, and the spirit in which they endure hardship. They seem, so far, to be doing well.
• Complaint: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” This observation tends to throw a shadow over the commendation. They were doing all the right things, but the love and energizing spirit were gone. They were so relentless in their efforts to preserve purity and absolute correctness that they forgot the faith and compassion for which Paul had commended them in Ephesians 1. They had become like the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 – hypocrites.
True, they had been vigilant in heeding Paul’s warning in Acts 20 to “be on your guard” against false teachers who would wreak havoc with the church. They were commended for stringently testing would-be teachers and preachers. But they did not balance being “absolutely right” with the spirit of love for one another and the Lord. Theirs was a dead orthodoxy: doctrinally sound but dead.
In contrast to the “work produced by faith … labor prompted by love, and … endurance inspired by hope” of the Thessalonians (1 Th. 1:3), they had only “deeds … hard work and … perseverance” (Rev. 2:2). They no longer had the spirit of faith, love and hope that initially accompanied their work, labor and endurance. Their activities had become drudgery. They had lost the dynamic “first love” as the motivating force in the church.
• Corrective: When the One whose “eyes were like blazing fire” discerns the heart of a problem, He also prescribes its correction. For the church in Ephesus this came in three crisp action verbs: “Remember … Repent and Do” (2:5). He calls on them to review their history and remember the fervor with which they had withstood the silversmiths of Diana’s temple. Thirty years earlier Paul had “never stopped giving thanks for … their faith in the Lord Jesus and love for all the saints” (Eph. 1:15), but now they are mostly of the next generation. By remembering the spirit of the early church they could see how far they had fallen.
Perhaps they had missed how much their spirit had changed because the shift had been so gradual. But now they have no excuse. They must face their failure without rationalizing or digging in their heels. They must repent before the One who saw through their empty routines and misplaced vigilance. Next, they must regain the spirit of the early church and do the things they did at first.
• Warning: “If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand” (2:5). The recommendation given in the previous section was not mere casual conversation. If they ignored it, they would no longer have impact on people’s lives. Although they might continue on in name as a church, God’s light would no longer shine through them to a needy world. Their own personal lives would no longer be exposed to the light. These are serious consequences.
J. N. Darby, 19th century Bible commentator, wrote: “The first great fact is, that the assembly (the local church) in this world is subject to judgment and to having its whole existence and place before God as light-bearer in the world set aside; second that God will do this if it departs from its first spiritual energy. This is an immense principle.” 3
• Challenge And Promise: Coupled with a promise, the challenge is addressed to anyone who will listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church, and will then act upon it. Notice that church renewal comes by individuals responding to the Lord and His word. The one who overcomes is promised access to “the tree of life” (2:7).
The message in this letter to the church in Ephesus, and in each of the remaining letters, is relevant to us in the 21st century. I encourage the reader to use this same outline to search out the urgent warnings and heartening commendations of the other six letters. Each of them is a contemporary message, from the One “who searches our hearts” (Rom. 8:27), to churches in every century. Each depicts conditions into which any church can fall. Walking among the golden lampstands of our day, our Lord would not have to dictate a new set of letters. One of the seven would most likely fit.
Our Lord concludes His evaluation of each church with an appeal to the individual: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes …” Ultimately, the burden of response is on each one of us. Church renewal will come when individuals respond to Christ and His word, giving ear to His warnings and promises. Following each statement of “To him who overcomes” is a promise of eternal significance!
1. The following chart was suggested by Merrill Tenny, Interpreting Revelation (Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI) p. 51.
2. Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible (Believers Bookshelf, Sunbury, PA) p. 377.
3. Darby, p. 379.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Hadley is a retired high school principal living in suburban Chicago. A long-time student of the Bible, he is involved in various Christian ministries as well as his local church.
|Chart Of The Seven Churches Of Revelation 2-3|
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org