Revelation 2 and 3 contain messages from the risen Christ to the seven churches of Asia. These messages of divine revelation and exhortation are pertinent to Christians today. They constitute one of the most incisive New Testament exhortations regarding Church doctrine and Christian living.It is remarkable that so little attention has been paid to the importance of these two chapters. Many worshipers in churches today are not even aware of these seven messages of Christ. Their pointed denunciation of departure from biblical morality and theology have kept these messages out of the mainstream of contemporary preaching. Yet many of the shortcomings in the Church today are a direct outgrowth of neglect of the instructions to these seven churches. These messages were not only written to the seven churches of John’s day but also to the Church and every Christian today, just as Paul’s Church epistles are also intended for the entire Church today. These seven letters are remarkable because they are direct letters from Christ Himself, and there is something applicable to all churches in each letter. As we read them, we’ll find a message for our local church as well as for each of us personally.
1. Ephesus: Church Of Lost Love (2:1-7)
Christ commended this church for its works, labor, patience, abhorrence of evil, ready detection of false teachers, steadfastness in bearing burdens, and the fact that they had not grown weary (Rev. 2:2,3). These characteristics indicated that this church had served the Lord well. They are needed in the Church today where often there is failure to serve the Lord patiently, and to compromise both moral and theological evil.
In spite of these desirable traits, the Ephesian church was soundly rebuked in one important matter: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:4 NKJV). The charge against this church was not “you have lost your first love” but “you have left your first love.” This church was backslidden and had gone off the track, not in doctrine but in its personal relationship to Christ. The Greek word for love in this verse (agape) is the same word used to signify God’s love in the Bible – the deepest, most meaningful love.
This same charge is common among God’s children today. It’s sad when a saint loses his first love for Christ, when he begins to seek his happiness in earthly things, and when Christ is no longer the center of his attention. Christ identified the problem and outlined the remedy: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works” (Rev. 2:5). The solution for this sad state addresses the three centers of our inner man – the mind “remembers,” the heart “repents,” and the will is called to “do the first works.”
The message to the Ephesian church presents to us the danger of losing our first love (2:4) – that fresh devotion we had to Christ when we were first converted. We are to echo Paul’s prayer of love (Eph. 3:16-19), heed Jude’s exhortation to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 21), and not allow the worthless things of the world to draw our hearts away from the Lord.
2. Smyrna: Church In Suffering (2:8-11)
This letter starts with a commendation for faithfulness: “I know your works, tribulations, and poverty (but you are rich)” What a comfort to these Christians to know that Christ knew that they were being persecuted not only by pagans but also by hostile Jews and Satan. Besides persecution, they also endured poverty – yet they were rich in the wonderful promises of Christ.
The problem of suffering has always perplexed us. Suffering is expected for the ungodly, but why should the godly suffer? The Bible gives a number of reasons: disciplinary (1 Cor. 11:30-32; Heb. 12:3-13); preventive, as Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7); to learn obedience as Christ did (Heb. 5:8); a tool for spiritual growth (Rom. 5:3-5); and to get our attention.
To this suffering church, Christ addressed two exhortations which are badly needed by all saints today. First, He said, “Do not fear any of those things” (Rev. 2:10). We have nothing to fear because our suffering cannot rob us of our eternal blessings in Christ. We are always in God’s care, and whatever is permitted in our lives is by His wise design. Second, He exhorted them to “be faithful until death” (Rev. 2:10). We also need this encouragement to be faithful when the test comes.
What do we learn from the message to the church at Smyrna? In a day when persecution of the saints is being revived, the Church may well heed the exhortation to “fear not” which is so frequent in the Bible. Our response to suffering should not be fear, but courage, joyous acceptance and thanksgiving.
3. Pergamos: Church In Compromise (2:12-17)
Christ commended this church for holding fast in spite of the fact that they lived where “Satan’s throne is … where Satan dwells” (2:13). This referred to the evil character this city displayed in its persecution of Christians. But in spite of this evil the believers held fast to His name and did not deny the faith.
The faithfulness of this church is a challenge to Christians today to stand fast when engulfed by the evil of this present world, religious apostasy and the temptation to compromise the truth. As a symbol of their faithfulness, one of their martyrs, “Antipas, My faithful martyr,” is mentioned. His name means “against all.” Pergamos was commended for standing fast for Christ.
In spite of their faithfulness in persecution, the Lord rebuked them for holding the doctrines of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans. Balaam was guilty of counseling King Balak to cause Israel to sin through intermarriage with heathen women and idol worship (Num. 22-25; 31:15-16). They were exhorted to repent, otherwise Christ would fight against them with the sword of His mouth (Rev. 2:16).
What does the message to this church teach us? It illustrates the constant danger of doctrinal compromise (2:14-15). Pray that the church today, which has forsaken so many fundamentals of biblical truth, may heed this warning.
4. Thyatira: Church Tolerating Apostasy (2:18-29)
Though much was wrong in this church, Christ’s commendation was remarkable: “I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first” (Rev. 2:19). He commends it for five virtues, including its love, for which none of the three preceding churches were commended. In addition, He mentioned that their last works were greater than their former works – a contrast to the Ephesian church.
In spite of this strong commendation, there was one frightful condemnation – a sweeping indictment of the church’s tolerance of a woman named Jezebel, and her teaching which led the church to commit fornication and eat things sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:20-23). Though she claimed to be a prophetess, she was not a true messenger of divine truth, as she had urged these Christians to continue the worship of idols.
After His condemnation, Christ exhorted the godly remnant in Thyatira: “Hold fast what you have till I come. And he who overcomes, and keeps My works to the end, to him I will give power over the nations … And I will give him the morning star” (Rev. 2:25-28). The expression “till I come” refers to the Rapture. To the overcomers is given the promise of “the morning star” which refers to Christ as the returning One who will rapture the Church before the dark hours preceding the dawn of the millennial kingdom.
What lesson do we learn from the church at Thyatira? This church was a monument to the danger of moral compromise. Today we should take heed to the departure from moral standards which has invaded the Church.
5. Sardis: Church That Was Dead ( 3:1-6)
To this church Christ said, “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). There is a marked change in His address to this church. To the previous churches He began with commendation; here He began with condemnation, because there was no commendation. Christ quickly stripped away their reputation of being alive by declaring them dead. Like the Pharisees, their outer appearance hid their lack of life. He added, “I have not found your works perfect before God” (Rev. 3:2).
The church at Sardis evidently had a reputation as being spiritual with an effective ministry. From the divine standpoint it was a church that was alive in name only; it was actually dead in spiritual life and power. Christ’s judgment of this church should be pondered by the churches today, which often are full of activity but with little that speaks of His power.
The message to the church at Sardis warns us against the danger of spiritual deadness, of orthodoxy without life, of outward appearance like the Pharisees who were likened to whited sepulchers. A church is in danger of being called dead when it is more concerned with form than life, when it loves systems more than Christ, and when it is more interested in material than spiritual things.
6. Philadelphia: Church Faithful (3:7-13)
As He did to the other churches, Christ said to Philadelphia, “I know your works.” He commended them with these words: “You have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name” (Rev. 3:8). This church had manifested a loyalty to Christ’s name and had publicly confessed its trust in Him. As the result, Christ promised that their adversaries, “the synagogue of Satan,” would be forced to see that this church contained true servants of God.
Because of their faithfulness, this church is singled out from the others by a clear reference to the Rapture: “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). This is a promise that they would not go through the Great Tribulation, which is unfolded in Revelation 6-18. This passage supports the hope that Christ will come for His Church before that time of trial referred to as the Tribulation.
What do we learn from the message to this church? Believers are commended by the Lord, but warned to “hold fast,” “persevere” and maintain the “little strength” that they possess while waiting for the Lord’s coming.
7. Laodicea: Church Lukewarm (3:14-22)
No word of commendation was extended to this church. These Christians were pictured as abhorrent to Christ because they were “lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (3:16). They received the most scathing rebuke of any church.
Christ referred to three different spiritual states: a state of coldness that includes all those who are cold to the things of God, with no evidence of salvation; a state of hotness that includes those who have genuine spiritual fervor and leave no question as to their eternal life, the indwelling power of the Spirit, and an effective testimony for Christ; and a state of lukewarmness that refers to those who have shown some interest in the things of God by attending church but might not have a true relationship with Christ. Such was this church.
Because the Christians in this church were lukewarm, Christ said He would spew them out of His mouth. Their being lukewarm spiritually was evidenced by their being content with material wealth and being unaware of their spiritual poverty. Christ used strong words to describe them: “wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” (3:17).
The message to the church of Laodicea is a warning for us today against lukewarmness, self-sufficiency, and being unaware of our desperate spiritual need. The only cure is to re-invite the excluded Christ to come in and become the center of our worship, adoration and love.
Each message to the seven churches of Asia concludes with a similar statement: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). Note that it is not what the Spirit “said” about past churches, but what the Spirit “says” to all churches. This tells us that the Spirit still speaks to us – a warning for the churches of today to “hear what the Spirit says.”
This statement is repeated in Revelation 13:9, but without the familiar phrase “what the Spirit says to the churches.” This suggests that the Rapture will take place between the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of 4, and the church, so prominent in chapters 2 and 3, will move from earth to heaven in chapter 4 and therefore is not mentioned in Revelation 13:9.
The invitation given long ago to the seven churches of Asia to “hear” what the Spirit says is extended to us today. May the Lord help us learn the lessons from these seven churches.
By Maurice Bassali
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org