Teaching series from Revelation

Seven Letters

Revelation 2, 3

Teaching t09176

Introduction

We will look at Revelation 2 and 3, which records seven brief letters addressed to seven churches in western Turkey. But these are no ordinary letters. They are dictated directly by Jesus to John while he was an exile on Patmos. Before we look at these letters, we need to take another look at the One who wrote them (read 1:12-19a).

Jesus is not a retired CEO—he is ruler of human history and the living leader of his church, acutely aware of our situation (in middle of the lampstands) and able to lead and protect them in his mission for them (stars are in his right hand).

The church is not a museum (or mausoleum) to preserve the memory of its departed founder or an institution free to chart its own course—but people who are under Jesus' authority and commissioned to radiate his life to a lost world (lampstands).

These letters (like the rest of the New Testament) are not sentimental greeting cards forged by John in Jesus' name—but Jesus authoritative messages that reveal his priorities for the church in every age and culture (as we will see).

Structure

Rather than take a detailed look at each of these letters (which would take many weeks), we will survey them in one week. (If you want a more in-depth analysis, check out my series or John Stott's What Jesus Says To the Churches.) All seven letters have a common structure, which provides us with some important insights into how Jesus relates to his church.

ADDRESS (“To the angel of the church in . . .”): Scholars disagree over he identity of these angels. Some say they are literal angels who serve the different local churches. Others say they represent the human couriers (“angel” literally means “messenger”) or human leaders of the churches. I agree with the former view, but I don't want to get bogged down in this and miss the main message of these letters.

DESCRIPTION OF JESUS (“The One who . . .”): Jesus identifies himself by referring to one of the aspects of his revelation to John in chapter 1. Evidently, this self-description is suited to their unique situation (though this is more apparent in some than others).

To the church in Smyrna, which is being severely persecuted, he is “the first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life” who can deliver them from the worst that their enemies can do to them. To the church in Pergamum, which is wrongly tolerating false teachers, he is “the One who has the sharp two-edged sword” who will deal with his enemies.

The point is that regardless of our situation, Jesus has the exact resources we need to fulfill our mission.

ANALYSIS (“I know your . . .”): Jesus is fully aware of their circumstances, and (like a skilled doctor) his searching gaze diagnosis their real spiritual condition. He is especially aware of their tendency to be deceived by others and/or to deceive themselves about their spiritual condition.

With three churches, his analysis is mixed—a combination of praise and criticism. Two churches receive on praise, while the other two receive only criticism. We'll take a closer look at this in the second half of this teaching.

The point is that no matter how confused we may be about our spiritual condition, Jesus can reveal it to us (if only we will listen to him).

COUNSEL: Jesus issues commands or authoritative advice that will help the church.

Sometimes, this counsel includes encouraging promises (2:10 – “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life”). Sometimes, this counsel includes sobering warnings (2:5 – “Repent . . . or I will remove your lampstand out of its place”).

The point is that Jesus doesn't just reveal our spiritual condition (and then leave us on our own); he also offers us effective treatment.

INVITATION TO OTHERS TO LISTEN & LEARN (“He who has an ear, let him listen to what the Spirit says to the churches”): Because Jesus' word is truth, it is applicable to all churches and individuals.

The point is that no matter how far removed we may be from these seven churches in space and time, God's Spirit can apply these letters to reveal and treat our spiritual condition. I came to Christ through an invitation in one of the letters (3:20), and I have been deeply convicted and encouraged by several other letters (EPHESUS IN L.A.; SARDIS A FEW YEARS AGO). They can have the same impact on you!

PROMISE TO “OVERCOMERS”: (To him who overcomes . . .”): Each letter ends by promising a specific feature of Jesus' future kingdom (described in chapters 19-22) to those who “overcome.”

Who are the “overcomers?” Sometimes the Bible uses this term to describe all true Christians (see 1 John 5:4; Romans 8:37; Revelation 21:7). In these letters, however, Jesus seems to be referring especially to those Christians who are faithful to him in the heat of battle, who fulfill his mission for their lives. That's why they are promised not only different aspects of eternal life that all Christians receive (e.g., deliverance from God's judgment and eternal life in God's presence), but also special rewards for faithful service (e.g., authority to rule and a crown of honor).

The point is that Jesus' compensation in his future kingdom makes serving him now more than worthwhile!

Overview & Lessons

We can group these churches into three general spiritual conditions: mixed (praise & criticism), bad (criticism only), and good (praise only). And we can learn some very important lessons from Jesus' counsel to each of these. Can you recognize your own church background? Can you recognize your present spiritual condition?

To the churches that receive both praise and criticism, Jesus is essentially saying, “You are seriously imbalanced.” They are involved in very common but opposite errors.

To the church in Ephesus, Jesus says, “You hate, but you don't love.”

He praises them for hating false doctrine (2:6) and discerning and rejecting false apostles (2:2). They knew that truth matters, they knew that spiritual falsehood is rampant and destructive—and they took seriously their responsibility to guard the content of God's Word. And because Jesus is the Truth, he praises them for this.

But he rebukes them because they “let go” of their first love (2:4). This refers to the primacy of their love relationship with him and others. It starts with receiving and basking in Jesus' love for us, it responds with glad praise and thanks to him and overflows in sacrificial love for others (see 1 John 4:11, 16, 19). This is what makes the Truth attractive, and this is why Jesus is upset that they're neglecting it, and says they'll lose their witness unless they correct it (John 13:34-35).

You may have grown up in a church like this. They can smell heresy a mile away, but there is a coldness and harshness and lack of personal love for Christ and people that is deeply dysfunctional. You may have this problem right now (I certainly have—1975). Ironically, the antidote had already been given to them by Paul (read and explain Ephesians 3:18-19).

To the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, Jesus says, “You love, but you don't hate.”

He praises them for their love and living faith in him (2:19), but he rebukes them because they have “let go” a false prophetess (2:20) to teach in their church and lead people astray. In the name of love, they are letting go of truth. And the result of this is person betrayal of Jesus because they worship false gods and personally destructive sexual immorality.

Maybe you have been from or been around churches like this: “Doctrine divides, but truth unites—love is all that matters” (CHARISMATIC; LIBERAL). The problem is that if devalue Jesus' truth, we can wind up loving a false Jesus and hurting rather than helping other people. Love is like a river—without the banks of truth, it becomes a destructive flood or a mile wide and an inch deep.

Jesus wants his us to be passionately committed to both his truth and his love! To be faithful to him, we need to be biblically knowledgeable and discerning—and we need to be excited about his love and loving others.

To the churches that receive only criticism, Jesus is essentially saying, “You are dangerously self-deceived.”

To the church in Laodecia, Jesus says, “You think you belong to me, but you don't.”

They confused their material affluence with spiritual life (3:17), but Jesus tells them that they are destitute because they don't know him. You may have grown up in a church like this (I did)—country-club nominalism and superficial ritualism and moralism. “Sure I'm a Christian—I live in God's country, I have God's material blessing, I was baptized, I belong to a church, I can recite the Apostles' Creed, I don't kill or steal—that's what being a Christian is, isn't it?”

If this is the case, you need to take Jesus' advice (3:19). He wants to give you true spiritual wealth through a personal relationship with him, and you can have this by opening the door of your heart and asking him to indwell you (3:20).

To the church in Sardis, Jesus says, “You think you are healthy, but you're dying.”

They were living off of their past accomplishments and their reputation with other churches (3:1b,2)—but Jesus looks past this and exposes a flabby, decaying faith and compromise with the world-system (“soiled garments”). They were evidently more concerned about conserving what they had (property; financial resources; popularity in the community) than they were concerned about fulfilling their unfinished calling and taking new ground for Jesus.

This describes many long-standing, reasonably large conservative churches—and I am especially afraid that it will come to characterize us! The only way for us to avoid this as a church is if we each individually keep spiritually awake, which requires taking he new, scary steps of faith that Jesus continues to put in front of us (3:3). Yesterday's faith will never fight today's battles!

To the churches that receive only praise, Jesus is essentially saying, “You are succeeding regardless of what others say.”

To the church in Smyrna, Jesus says 2:9a (read). They may be suffering horribly for their faith in Jesus (persecution and impoverishment), so that others look on them as impotent failures. But they are rich in the only way that matters (spiritually), because their suffering has burned away their spiritually deadening reliance on worldly blessing and cast them on Jesus alone—who fills them with his joy and peace and hope in the midst of their suffering.

This is why Joseph Tson (coming this weekend) is free to live with fearless abandon for Christ (MUSLIM EVANGELISM?). This is why the church in China prays for us, that we may be persecuted as they have been persecuted!

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus says 3:8 (read). They have “but little power”—they are not big, financially flush, full of movers and shakers, politically connected, etc.—but they are excited about and committed to sharing Christ with people who don't know him. And because of this, they are connected to the only One that matters (Jesus). He promises to give them the opportunity to reach many, many people.

This has been a pretty good description of Xenos over the years (EXPLAIN), and God has blessed with continuing opportunities to reach people here and all over the world (4 COUPLES LEAVING THIS MONTH). I hope we never get much power in this sense, and I hope we always stay focused on what is closest to Jesus' heart—lost people who need his love and truth!

Copyright 2002 Gary DeLashmutt