Reflections on the Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (Rev. 2-3)
What does a letter written in the first century to churches in the Roman province of Asia have to do with churches in the twenty-first century? It is clear that each church is addressed with respect to particular issues with which that local congregation was facing. Each church is also addressed in terms of the features and history of its own locality (e.g., the call to watch for the church of Sardis; the description of lukewarm water in contrast to hot and cold for the church of Laodicea). So do they have any application beyond their own time and setting? Well, hopefully by this point you can see that they have. But if you are still wondering this, let me give you two reasons that we should keep in mind and which should give us confidence that these letters are still meant to speak to the church in our day and place.
First, the fact that God in his providence placed Revelation in the canon of Scripture is a testament to this (see Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (IVP: Downers Grove, 2018), p. 211-215). In fact, the Scriptural status of the book of Revelation was affirmed very early by the church. Irenaeus, the second century pastor in Lyon, quoted it as Scripture in his writings. The earliest canonical list of the NT, the second century Muratorian Fragment, also lists Revelation as Scripture. Other second century authors who held to the canonical status of Revelation include such luminaries as Clement of Alexandria and Theophilus of Antioch. This shows, by the way, that the canonical status of Revelation wasn’t created in later centuries by the church; it was recognized as the Word of God from the very beginning.
Now this has tremendous implications for us. The fact that God has preserved this letter as authoritative Scripture for the church is an indication that it is meant for all the church at all times. So though these letters should be read in the context of their original setting, we shouldn’t read them as if they aren’t meant also to speak to us.
And that brings us to the second reason we should apply these letters to our own place and time: the letters themselves tell us to do so. Every single letter includes the admonition, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This is not just to the members of these particular churches; it is to anyone who has an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying in them. And that means that it is intended for everyone whose ears have been opened by the Spirit of God to hear. It means that it is intended for you and me. R.C. Trench has written that “the practical interest of these Epistles is extreme . . . they are full of teaching, of the most solemn warning, of the strongest encouragement. . .. I know of almost nothing in Scripture so searching, no threatenings so alarming, no promises so comfortable, as are some which these Epistles contain.” (R. C. Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches of Asia, p. 3-4) Let us therefore hear what they have to say!
What I want to do now is to consider these letters as a whole from the perspective of the relationship of Christ and the church. One of the things that I want to encourage us to get a vision for is the vital importance of the church, not only for the world but for each of us in particular. And surely one way to encourage such an attitude is by seeing how Christ himself is dedicated to the spiritual health and prosperity of the church for which he died. As we step back and look at these letters from this perspective, there are four things I want us to consider in terms of Christ’s relationship with the church: Christ loves, knows, speaks to, and protects the church.
Christ loves the church.
“As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent” (Rev. 3:19). Though this is said to the church of Laodicea, we can see that it really stands behind every rebuke delivered to these churches. Why does he speak so severely to the churches? It is not because he hates the church but because he loves the church. He can’t stand to see loveless churches, compromising churches, dead churches, and lukewarm churches. When someone you love is making choices that you know are going to bring harm to them, it tears at your very soul. And if you love them, you are going to tell them, warn them, and rebuke them. That is what our Lord is doing here. He will not allow these churches to go on in sinful patterns of behavior. He will not allow them to continue to fall for false doctrines and wrong thinking. He loves them, and therefore he comes to each of them and confronts them and rebukes them.
And of course Jesus has every right to confront us and rebuke us when we go wrong, for he has died for the church in the first place. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church several years before, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). We are “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). As our Lord himself put it, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:14-15). The apostle Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to “feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
Now consider this: the Bible says very clearly that Christ died for the church. And he didn’t just die as an example to the church, but he died in order to redeem the church. The blood of the incarnate Son of God was shed for the salvation of the church. You can tell how valuable something is by the price paid for it, but how can you put a value on the church? Its price is the blood of the Son of God! As the apostle Peter puts it, “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Brothers and sisters, Christ the eternal Son of God, loves the church so much that he laid down his life for it. How can we then despise the church without despising the Lord? Now you might say, “Well, when it says that Christ died for the church, it isn’t referring to any institution, but to the people who make up the church.” I agree that the main concern is the people who make up the church. However, you simply cannot separate church from the congregation of the saints, who are organized under proper spiritual leadership, and who together submit to the preached word, the observance of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline. It means that our Lord values these things; his blood went to purchase these things. We should value them too.
I think this should also inform how we ought to love the church. It’s not simply by having a warm, fuzzy feeling in your stomach, or wonderful memories of past services. It means that we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for the church, not of course in any sort of redemptive way, but because we also care about what Christ cares about. Do we love the church in this way? Think again about how Paul addresses the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. He is motivating them to love the church because Christ shed his blood for it. This is meant clearly not only to be a motivation but also in some way to help them to live sacrificially and devotedly for the good of the church. Are we motivated in the same way? I am afraid that for many Christians the church has become nothing more than an extracurricular activity. Is this the way the early church looked at itself? Is this the way the earliest Christians operated? Clearly not, and I think one of the reasons they didn’t is because they truly felt the reality that Christ loves the church and gave himself for it.
Timothy Dwight (a grandson of Jonathan Edward) wrote this about the church:
I love thy kingdom, Lord,
the house of thine abode,
the church our blest Redeemer saved
with his own precious blood.
I love thy church, O God:
her walls before thee stand,
dear as the apple of thine eye
and graven on thy hand.
For her my tears shall fall,
for her my prayers ascend;
to her my cares and toils be giv'n,
'til toils and cares shall end.
Beyond my highest joy
I prize her heav'nly ways,
her sweet communion, solemn vows,
her hymns of love and praise.
Do we think that way? Shouldn’t the love of Christ compel us to think and feel that way?
Christ knows the church.
In every letter, our Lord declares, “I know thy works” (Rev. 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15). He then goes on to list specific ways they are doing well or ways in which they are sinning. We’ve also noted that when our Lord speaks to each church, he speaks to them in terms of their own specific setting, often referencing or assuming historical events and geographic features that would have been well known to the people in that church.
This is a needed reminder that our Lord is not just up in heaven busy doing his own thing and ignoring the concerns of his people on the earth. He knows what we have done and are doing. He knows not just general details, but he knows specifics. He knows the things that are well known, and he knows the things that we hide. He knows the truth about us. He knows the truth about our churches.
This is good news for several reasons. First of all, it means that the church is not finally dependent upon our own knowledge and wisdom for its protection and preservation. It means that the church is not finally dependent upon “earthen vessels” for its Master is in heaven beholding all things. We will see that this is underlined throughout this epistle. One of the great things about Revelation is that it parts the curtain that separates heaven and earth, and we see that heaven has far more to do with the affairs of men than can be seen by mere mortal eyes.
It is also good news because it is another reminder of how much the Lord cares for the church. “The LORD knoweth the way of the righteous, but the way of the ungodly shall perish” (Ps. 1:6). “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Mt. 6:32). He knows and cares. And he will therefore provide for the church all that it needs so that the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
It is also good news because it means that all that we do in the church and for the church, though it may go unnoticed or unappreciated by men, will never go unnoticed and unappreciated by the Lord. “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb. 6:10). It can be very hard to be taken for granted. It can be very hard to do difficult work for difficult people and then to treated like a doormat. But that’s okay. And you know why it’s okay? Because God knows, has not forgotten, and is never in danger of forgetting. The good works of the saints will not be finally hidden. I love the way the prophet puts it: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not” (Mal. 3:16-18). You may not get your reward from men. But trust me; you don’t want that anyway. You want the reward that comes from God only. That which is done in secret, he will reward openly (cf. Mt. 6:1-18).
This is a reminder that we should not be operating as a church with an eye to the approval of men. God is watching; Christ knows the details of this church. Let us therefore strive with all our might to please him and him alone.
Christ speaks to the church.
We should not miss the obvious here – Christ speaks to the church in what has been passed down through the ages in Scripture. He does not leave the church to figure things out for itself. The church is to be guided by the voice of its Master and Lord. The sheep of Christ hear his voice and follow him. For us that means listening to the words of the apostles and prophets in the pages of the Bible. God has spoken to us here and he continues to speak to us here. What is normative for the church is Scripture and Scripture alone.
Nor are we to replace the words of Christ with the words of some kind of churchly hierarchy, like you have in Roman Catholicism. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need teachers. After all, Christ gives the church pastors and teachers for the growth and health of the church (Eph. 4:11, ff.). But the final authority for the Christian is not the Pope or some bishop somewhere or even some theological academic. The final authority for our faith and life is always the Bible.
And the individual Christian is expected to be able to hear the Spirit-inspired words of Christ to the church: “Let the one who has ears to hear,” is not directed only to the spiritual leadership of the church but to all Christians. We are all accountable for the way we hear the word of God. We can’t hide behind any protestation of ignorance. The Bible assumes the clarity of the word of God as it respects our accountability to obey. And though that doesn’t mean we will always understand everything it says, or that everything in the Bible is equally clear, the fact of the matter is that enough is clear enough to leave us without excuse when we choose to neglect it or disobey it or refuse to believe it.
And that means that a healthy church is a Berean sort of church, the kind of church where the people search the Scriptures to see if what they are being taught is so (Acts 17:11). And it means that the kind of church that we should aspire to be is the kind of church which consistently hears the voice of Christ as the Scriptures are opened and preached faithfully and consistently, with truth and grace and love.
When we consider the ways that Christ speaks to the churches in these two epistles, one thing especially ought to stand out: the emphasis on faithfulness to the end. Every letter ends with a promise to those who overcome (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). These are not just promises of earthly blessing, or even spiritual blessings this side of heaven. It is very clear that these are promises of participation with Christ in the future kingdom in the age to come. I have said it before, and I will say it again: there simply are no promises to those who will not persevere. One of the evidences of the new birth, according to the apostle John, is perseverance in the faith: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5). In respect to false teachers and those who were led away by them the apostle said this: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn. 2:19).
Though that doesn’t mean that believers will be sinlessly perfect (much of the counsel of these letters wouldn’t have been needed if that were the case!) it does mean that the faith granted in the new birth can never be finally overthrown. How could it? Christ is praying for his elect that their faith fail not! (Lk. 22:32) This being the case, it means that faith in Christ will continue to flavor the life of the believer to the very end. And though at times the fruit of faith may become diminished through sin, it will never be completely obscured. Christ, not sin, reigns in the hearts of believers through the Spirit of God.
You also see this in the repeated emphasis on faithfulness throughout the epistles. For the Ephesians to have left their first love was a departure from faithfulness (2:4). The church at Smyrna was exhorted to be faithful unto death (2:10). The church at Pergamum was commended for holding fast to the name of Christ (2:13). The remnant in the church at Thyatira was encouraged to “hold fast till I come” (2:25). Part of the direction to the church at Sardis was to “hold fast, and repent” (3:3). We’ve already seen the emphasis on faithfulness in the church of Philadelphia, which had kept the word of Christ and had not denied his name (3:8). Finally, the great problem with the church of Laodicea is that it had not been faithful to the Lord through lukewarmness and was being called back to a faithful walk of obedient faith.
This faithfulness is not just faithfulness to sound doctrine but faithfulness to Christ himself – to love and serve him above all other allegiances. This ought to be reflected in the priorities of the church as a whole, but it also ought to be reflected in the lives of individual believers. Do our lives show that? Do we live as those whose entire lives are devoted to knowing Christ and making him known? Do we live as people who love Jesus Christ above all things? Are we people who seek first the kingdom of God, or are we people who are more devoted to laying up treasure upon the earth? Let us be faithful to our Lord!
Christ protects his church.
Our Lord protects the church that he loves. He defends from enemies that arise from within and he also stands for the church against its enemies who threaten it from without.
You see the second aspect of this (protecting the church from external threats) most clearly when it comes to the two faithful churches: Smyrna and Philadelphia. These are the only two churches which are not condemned for doctrinal or ethical aberration. But they are also the two churches which were then experiencing persecution. To these believers, our Lord promises protection.
Not in the sense of the removal of the persecution. He protects them in the same way the apostle Paul understood protection in the midst of persecution: “Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:17-18). Here the apostle does not see deliverance in terms of release from prison or the death sentence, for he knows that he is about to die (see verses 6-8). Rather, for him deliverance means staying faithful even in the face of death. And that is what our Lord was enabling the believers in the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia to do. By encouraging them through promises and strengthening them by grace, he would enable them to persevere and remain faithful to the very end.
We also see Christ’s protection of the church in the vision of the risen Christ in chapter 1, in his holding the seven stars in his hands, which are interpreted to be the seven angels of the seven churches (Rev. 1:16, 20; cf. 2:1). Whatever these angels are (I believe they represent the senior pastors of each respective church), they are inseparable from the churches themselves, because it is through the angels of the churches that Christ addresses each church (note how each letter begins, “And unto the angel of the church of …). The fact that the seven stars are in his hands is indicative, not only of his sovereignty over each church, but of his protection of them as well. It reminds us of our Lord’s words in John 10, where he says, “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (Jn. 10:26-29).
And I am so thankful for this reality. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are all weak and frail. Apart from the grace of God, we will never make it to the end. But, thanks be to God, he is the one who “is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24).
However, there is another aspect to our Lord’s protection. He not only defends it from external enemies; he also defends it from internal threats as well. Our Lord is not satisfied to merely point out the problems in the churches. He is moved to do something about it. If they will not repent, there will be consequences. The church at Ephesus will lose its lampstand (2:5). He will come to the church at Pergamos sword in hand to fight against those who are corrupting the church (2:16). He will kill the followers of Jezebel in the church of Thyatira (2:22-23). He will come like a thief against the church of Sardis if it does not wake up from its spiritual slumbers (3:3). He will vomit the church of Laodicea out of his mouth if it will not turn from its lukewarmness (3:16).
You might say, “Well, if that’s the case, then better to not even be in the church!” Oh, no, my friend! To be out of the church is to be handed over to the devil (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5). Paul clearly views the church as a place of protection against the devil; that is removed when you are placed outside of the church. Moreover, as Paul puts it to the Corinthian church those who are without God judges (12). We cannot escape God.
But we need to see this, not as something bad for us but as something good. As the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Heb. 12:6-7). He disciplines those he loves so that they will be more holy and happy. He chastens us “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness” (10). And although it is true that no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (11).
To be in a Biblical church, therefore, is to put yourself in a place where God is dealing with you through the church for your good. He disciplines the church so that the church will be pure, so that those who belong to the church will grow and become more Christlike. Now that doesn’t mean that God can’t get a hold of a person if they are outside of the church. But it does mean that those who are outside of the church cut themselves off from one of the important means of grace which Christ has provided for us.
One of the implications of this is that we need to care about what we believe and how we live. We need to guard against doctrinal drift and ethical drift. It’s one of the reasons I think teaching a series on systematic theology and Biblical ethics is important. We need to be constantly examining our thinking by the standard of God’s word. It is so easy to just adopt the ways of thinking from the culture around us and to start compromising with the world before we even realize it. We have therefore to be consciously Biblical about what we believe.
But it doesn’t’ just stop there. We need to care about how we live. It’s not enough to be orthodox; the church at Ephesus proves that. We need to live as the elect of God, holy and beloved, with humility and kindness and gentleness and longsuffering and patience, putting off the sins of the flesh and putting on Christ-likeness. We need to seek those things which are above; we need to set our affections on things above where Christ sits at the right hand of the Father (cf. Col. 3).
One of the things that these letters show us is that Christ cares more for the holiness of his church than he does about the longevity of any particular church. It is true of course that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. But that does not mean than any one particular congregation is guaranteed that its lampstand will not be removed. We need to take seriously therefore not only the promise of the Lord to bless his churches, but also the threat of discipline.
Conclusion: How do we relate to the church?
What are our priorities when it comes to the church? Surely they ought to be the priorities of the Lord. He loves the church: we should love it too. He knows the church: how well do we know each other? How well are we ministering to one another? Are we strangers to each other? He speaks to the church through Scripture: we ought to value the Bible in our daily life and as we hear the preached word. He protects the church; we ought to be careful to maintain the purity of the church in life and doctrine.
I pray often for the following things. For unity (loving the church), for community (knowing the church), for purity of life and doctrine (which comes about through Christ speaking to and protecting his church). I also pray for visibility in the community – not for the glory of our name but for the glory of Christ. But we don’t want visibility in the community for visibility’s sake: we want to be visible as a unified community of believers who are living out their faith in Christ together.
And that takes doing. It doesn’t happen automatically. And we shouldn’t think that it will happen by just meeting once a week.
Back in August 2021, I mentioned my hope that one day we will be able to have functioning small groups in our church which will not only provide gospel outposts for our church but will also provide mid-week opportunities for spiritual encouragement and growth, an outworking of the principle of Heb. 3:12-13. I don’t want you to think that I haven’t been doing anything about it, though we are almost 2 years later. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading and praying about this. And I’m ready to do something about it. So I want to make an announcement of sorts: later this summer, I plan to begin a study group for anyone who is interested in helping to lead and facilitate a small group. This group will be a sort of test group as well, and a model for the groups that I hope will form out of that. If you are interested in doing this, please let me know and I will be happy to share with you a bit more information. I will be providing training, so that you don’t have to feel like you are going to be launched into this on your own.
My vision for these small groups comes out of my conviction of the absolute need that each one of us has for the church. The church shouldn’t be something that we just tack on to the end of the week (or beginning, however you want to look at it!), but something that is part and parcel, of the warp and woof, of our lives. Not for us to become burdened with lots of things to do. The fellowship of the saints is not meant to be a burden hanging around our necks; it is meant to be a life-line which keeps us afloat with hope and joy and peace in Christ. It is not meant to be something that weighs us down but to help us run the race of faith with joy as we surround ourselves with fellow witnesses to the faithfulness of the Lord.
Groups like this also provide opportunities for people to exercise a larger range of spiritual gifts. If all we do is come to church on Sunday, the opportunities for us to exercise our spiritual gifts for the good of the church is limited. I want to help to equip you so that you too can do the work of building up the church for the glory of God.
Surely, if Jesus our Lord cares so much for the church, we should too. These letters demonstrate just how committed he is to the church. Let us be also!