2A. THE PRESENCE OF JESUS CHRIST IN THIS AGE 1:19-3:22
(The things which are)
1B. Insight about the church 1:19-20
Verse 19 is the KEY to the Book. The three parts of The Revelation are:
1- What you have seen - The Person of Jesus
2- The Things that are - The Presence of Jesus Christ in This Age
3- The things that will take place - The Program of Jesus Christ For The Future
There are several possible ways to view these seven churches. They were actual churches that existed in John's lifetime in the area of Asia. They are, however, so different from one another, that they could stand for all the kinds of churches that exist, as can be seen in the variety of denominations today. Probably the best way to see these churches is symbolic of seven periods of church history. This is the view presented here. Thus, Ephesus, the first church, portrays the Apostolic period, from the birth of the Church, at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), until approximately AD 100.
The messages to the churches follow a pattern. First, there is a description of Jesus Christ in terms that are especially important to each church. Second, there is affirmation of the good characteristics of the church. Thirdly, there is a warning for each church (except Smyrna, and Philadelphia). Finally, there is a reward promised to those in the church who are overcomers.
2B. Instruction to the church 2:1-3:22
1C. To Ephesus 2:1-7
During the Apostolic period there were false apostles. The early church was careful to identify true apostles and reject the false. This explains the need for the Apostle Paul to defend his calling as an apostle in 2 Corinthians, chapters 11-13. In chapter 11, verse 13 he also mentions people who were masquerading as false apostles.
Believers of this period also endured great hardships without giving up their faith. Christianity was considered false by the majority of Jewish people who had been blinded because of their unbelief (Romans 11). Those who followed Christ often had to do so against the wishes of their families. Jesus warned His followers that this would happen (Matthew 10:34-39). Opposition to early Christianity became so strong that believers were scattered and many were imprisoned and even killed. Before he was converted, Paul zealously persecuted the church (Acts 9:1-2,21).
It is shocking that this early church had lost its "first love" for Christ. It shows that it is possible for any Christian to be distracted from his devotion to the Lord by the cares of the world. Jesus Himself gave the Parable of the Sower which teaches that some new Christians fail to develop deep roots, others are choked by the competing "weeds" that spring up around them, and others grow well and bear good fruit (Matthew 13:3-8).
The good news is that if a person, or even a whole group of people in a church, should loose their first love, there is a way to be restored. It is by repenting. To repent means to turn around and go the other way. If a Christian discovers that he no longer enjoys Christian fellowship and learning about the Bible, and telling others about Christ, there is something he or she can do. Repentance requires honest self-appraisal. One must identify the sins that are separating him from the Lord, and then confess (Greek †homologeo‡ -" to say the same"). This means that the person agrees with God about the sin. When a person does this, God is faithful to forgive and cleanse him or her from sin (1 John 1:9).
The church of the Apostolic period hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans. This is a Greek word which means "Conquerors of the people." This is probably a reference to the false apostles mentioned earlier, and their tendency to establish a ruling class over the rest of the people in the church. The proper Scriptural view is that the church is like a body, and different people in the church have different gifts from God, but all are of equal importance to the well-being of the whole spiritual body (1Corinthians 12).
The promise to overcomers of this period is to eat of the Tree of Life which is said to be in paradise. Adam and Eve ate instead from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus rebelling against God and entering into sin (Genesis 3). Part of the result of this sin was to be banished from the Garden of Eden so that they would not eat of this tree and live forever in their fallen state (Genesis 3:22-24). Nevertheless, an overcomer will be delivered from this fallen state, and will be permitted to partake of this fruit, thus living forever as a redeemed person!
Who then is an overcomer? John himself explains this in I John 5:4-5: "For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God." (NIV)
2C. To Smyrna 2:8-11
Smyrna was a city, of course, but it's name means "Myrrh," a valuable spice used in the process of embalming. It symbolizes death and yet is a sweet fragrance. This is an apt word picture for the period of church history characterized by martyrdom. This period lasted from approximately 100 to 312 AD when Constantine established Christianity as the state religion of the empire. During these two centuries there were ten definable periods of persecution of Christians under ten of the Emperors of Rome. To these believers, Jesus identified Himself as the resurrected one!
There is no warning to this church, since it was a church constantly purified by the rigors of persecution. To put it simply, only a strong, dedicated Christian would be willing to die for Christ. A hypocrite would quit the church long before he would risk losing his life. True believers would be faithful unto death, and would thus receive a crown of life. This is one of the special believers' crowns mentioned in the Bible. Faithful believers will be able to lay these at the feet of Christ in the future to prove their love for Him (Revelation 4:10).
The promise to overcomers of this period is that, though they might need to die physically, they would not be hurt by the "second death." This subject is revisited in Revelation 20:12-15 where it is equated with eternal punishment and being cast into the Lake of Fire. The Biblical concept of death is not annihilation, but separation. When a person dies physically, the material part (body) is separated from the immaterial (soul and spirit). The person does not cease to exist. Spiritual death is seen in the Scriptures as separation from God (Genesis 3, Ephesians 2:1). Those who are spiritually dead may be brought back to life-- be born again. (Ephesians 2:2-10; John 3:3-18).
3C. To Pergamum 2:12-17
Pergamum, also known as Pergamos, had a colorful history as a major city of Asia Minor. It was steeped in pagan idolatry, serpent worship, and Caesar worship. See Satan's Throne at Pergamum for a description of the influence of ancient Babylonian mysteries on the city.
Pergamum means "thoroughly married." It represents the period of church history when the church became married to the world. Constantine, the Emperor of the Roman Empire probably meant well when he issued a decree that all his subjects should become Christians, but it actually did much damage to the church. The majority of people became Christian in name only, bringing their pagan practices and lifestyles into a compromised church. This merger of the church and state took place with the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This period lasted until about AD 500. During this time the Bishop of Rome assumed the title: Pontifex Maximus.
To this church Jesus revealed Himself as the one with the sharp double-edged sword proceeding from His mouth. Hebrews 4:12 calls God's Word a double-edged sword, able to divide even between soul and spirit. In the same book Jesus is considered God's ultimate Word (Hebrews 1:1-2). In John's own writings Jesus is called The Word (John 1:1,14). If the church would follow Jesus and His Word, they would be able to separate the truth from the pagan influences which had come in like a flood.
The warning to this church is about those who allowed the teaching of Balaam. This refers to a fascinating story from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapters 22 through 24, where a prophet Balaam was hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse Israel. He tried repeatedly, but God would not allow him to utter a curse against His people. However, he evidently advised Balak to involve the Israelites in worldliness and immorality. Thus Israel could be corrupted from within. This, of course, is exactly what happened to the church during this period of time. They were corrupted by worldliness.
The teaching of the Nicolaitans. These church clerics who lorded it over the people were first encountered above during the period of the Church at Ephesus. They had now entrenched their position by their doctrine.
Overcomers are promised hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written upon it. The hidden manna might be the truth of Scripture which was in the process of being hidden by the worldly church. The white stone is a symbol taken from the ancient custom of giving a black stone to one judged guilty, and a white one to one who is acquitted. ("Revelation 2:12-17", †Matthew Henry's Commentary‡, Electronic Version)
4C. To Thyatira 2:18-29
Thyatira stands for a dark period of the church from about AD 1000 until the time of the Reformation which began in 1517. During this time such unfortunate historical events, as the inquisitions and the Crusades demonstrated the deepening lack of spirituality of the church. It was also the time when indulgences were sold, whereby people could pay money to supposedly have their sins removed. This led to the posting of Luther's 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg church and the beginning of the Reformation.
Even this church received at least a mild commendation for doing some things right, but it also was given a stern warning about the toleration of Jezebel whose practices included false prophecy, immorality, and eating food offered to idols. It seems unlikely that Jezebel was an actual person during this period of time. This is more likely another of the many symbols in the book. Jezebel, an Old Testament queen, was an incredibly wicked person who was known for her idolatry, immorality, and hatred of the true prophets (1 Kings chapters 18 through 21 and 2 Kings 9). This would then symbolize the church hierarchy with its growing spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry which eventually caused the splitting of the church at the Reformation. It also prefigures the specter of the Woman Riding the Beast in Revelation 17.
The promise to overcomers is to give authority over the nations. This stands in contrast to the deep secrets of Satan which may be a reference to the unholy alliance between the church and various governments. God was not pleased with Papal influence over the nations, but He will be pleased to allow His righteous followers to rule and reign with Christ when He returns as King of Kings (Revelation 19:11-16).
The overcomer will also receive the morning star. Jesus calls Himself the morning star in Revelation 22:16.
5C. To Sardis 3:1-6
The Sardis church represents the Reformation church from 1517 until the mid-1700's when the great revivals and modern missions movement began. This was a time when the church had a reputation for being alive, but, as God saw it, they were really dying. History reveals that, though the churches of the Reformation did break away from problems in the Roman Catholic Church, they still did not return to thoroughly Biblical practices, and had many problems of their own, including the union of church and state and the persecution of other reformers such as the Anabaptists who practiced believer's baptism and were pacifists.
Jesus reveals Himself to this church as the one who holds the Seven Spirits (The Holy Spirit - see Introduction to Revelation), and the seven stars, identified earlier as the pastors of the seven churches. These images indicate His sovereignty and His right to tell them to repent and change their ways.
The overcomer will be given white garments and his name will not be blotted out of the Book of Life. It seems that each person's name is already in the Book of Life, but those who are not true believers will have their names blotted out. This book is also mentioned in Revelation 20:12 where those not found in it are cast into the Lake of Fire.
6C. To Philadelphia 3:7-13
Philadelphia is the missionary church. It began in the mid 1700's with the great revivals and the modern missions movement and it gradually lost its power during the early years of the 1900's. Philadelphia means brotherly love. It is this love that causes the desire to evangelize others (Romans 5:5). Jesus is seen as having the keys of David. He was of the line of David, and thus eligible for the throne of Israel. The key is for opening the door of opportunity for missions. No one can close what He has opened. No one can open what He has closed.
There is no warning to this church, but many promises including these: "I am coming soon.", and a promise to keep them from the hour of trial that is coming on the world. These are definite allusions to the Rapture and to its timing: before the trials of The Tribulation. There is also a warning not to let anyone take their crown. This refers to one of the believers' crowns: possibly the crown of life which was promised to the overcomers of the Smyrna church above.
To the overcomers of this period there is a promise of a new name and permanent residence in the New Jerusalem.
7C. To Laodicea 3:14-2
The Laodicean church is the last church of the seven, and stands for the last of the church periods. The name Laodicea means "rule of the people." It is a picture of a church controlled by the people instead of by God. It is the church of the Apostasy, or the great "falling away" of believers.
Jesus reveals Himself as ruler of all creation, and as the faithful and true one in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Laodiceans. He says they are neither spiritually hot or cold, but lukewarm, and that He will spit them out of His mouth. This is shocking news to a people who have a very good feeling about themselves. They say they are rich, but they are poor and wretched and blind. If they were spiritually "hot" they would be like the flaming evangelists of the Philadelphia church. If they were "cold" perhaps they would recognize their spiritual plight. But they are active in their church work, doing what they want instead of what God wants. They are like those about whom Jesus warned-- they call Him Lord, but He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23).
Jesus counsels them to buy gold, symbolic of faith (1 Peter 1:7), white garments, which are like the linen of imputed righteousness with which the Bride of Christ is dressed (Revelation 19:7-8), and eye salve, showing dependence on God's spiritual healing for their blinded eyes.
To this church Jesus says He is standing outside the door, knocking. If they will open the door, He will come in. This is a church full of unsaved people. Since it comes at the end of the church age, it is easy to see that there will still be many who call themselves Christians left behind when the Rapture takes place.
Still, there are overcomers even from this church. Those who will open the door to Christ will be overcomers. To them, Jesus will grant the right to sit with Him on His throne. This is undoubtedly a reference to the future privilege of believers to reign with Christ.
See: Revelation Notes for information about the entire Book of Revelation.