Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation, part 1)

At our Wednesday evening Bible class this past week, I read this quote from Steven Cole.  He said, “I’m always amazed at how fascinated everyone is by biblical prophecy. One night when I was in the Coast Guard, I was sitting alone in the bridge of the cutter on radio watch when the chief came up to get some paperwork. I was reading First Peter. The chief looked over my shoulder and asked, ‘Whatcha reading?’ Then he answered his own question, ‘Oh, Peters huh? You ought to read Revelations. It’s really [cool].’  I thought, ‘Here is this thoroughly pagan man who thinks that the book of the Bible that describes God’s awful wrath and judgment against sinners is a cool book!’”

            Cole went on to say, “People are drawn to prophecy like moths to the fire, not realizing that biblical prophecy warns sinners to repent and flee from God’s coming wrath.”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that there tend to be two very different reactions to the book of Revelation.  One reaction, as Cole pointed out, is that people are fascinated by this book.  I can’t tell you how many people who have very little Bible knowledge have said to me, “I want to study the book of Revelation.”

But, on the other hand, I find that there are a lot of Christians who are very uncomfortable with the book of Revelation.  They’re almost afraid of it because it just seems so difficult to understand.

Part of our apprehension has to do with all the wild interpretations that we may have heard.  Part of it has to do with the bizarre images that are used in this book.  To step into the world of Revelation is to step into a strange world of angels and demons; of lambs, lions, horses and dragons.  Two evil beasts appear, one rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads, and the other rising from the earth with the horns of a lamb and the voice of a dragon.  There’s thunder, lightning, hail, fire, blood and smoke.

            But while there may be much that we don’t understand in the book of Revelation, this is a book that we dare not neglect.  The very first verse tells us that this book is a revelation from God to his people.  In verse 3, a special bless­ing is promised to those who read this book aloud to the church and to those who listen.  That means that this is the only book in the Bible that has a specific blessing on those who read it and those who hear it! 

As we bring our study through the New Testament to a close, we come now to the book of Revelation.  Because there is so much material in this book, the Bible Project has divided their overview of this book into two parts, so I’ll be preaching from Revelation both today and next Sunday morning.

This morning, I want to focus our attention on the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in chapters 2 and 3, but first let’s watch this overview of the first half of Revelation and then I’ll be back to dig into the text.

Show VIDEO (Revelation, part 1)

            In the very first verse of this book, we read, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place.” (Revelation 1:1). This verse tells us several important things — first of all, it is a divine revela­tion.  The message of this book comes directly from God.  Secondly, this book was written for God’s servants.  It was written for Christians.

            More specifically, in verse 11, Jesus said to John, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” (Revelation 1:11).  These seven cities are all located in the area that was known as Asia Minor, the area we know today as the country of Turkey.

            These seven cities formed sort of a circle and are listed in the order in which a messenger might visit them if he was sent to deliver a message to them all.  Sailing from the island of Patmos, where John had been banished, he would arrive first at Ephesus on the coast.  He would then travel north to Smyrna and Pergamos, southeast to Thyatira, Sardis and Philadelphia, and finish out his journey at Laodicea.

            The entire book of Revelation is addressed to all of these churches collectively, but in chapters 2 and 3, Jesus dictates a separate letter to each of these seven churches.  The one who is the Savior of the church, the head of the church, the Lord of the church, speaks directly to each of these churches about their strengths and weaknesses and gives them some encouragement as well as some instructions for change and improvement

            As we read these letters, keep in mind that these letters were addressed to seven actual congregations in seven actual cities in Asia Minor.  And while these letters weren’t addressed to us personally, I think they’re important because they let us know what sorts of things Christ is concerned about in his church today. 

            These seven congregations stand as representatives of the entire church for all time.  As Jesus spoke to the needs of each church then, he speaks to the needs of the church now.  He speaks to us.

            And if these seven letters teach us nothing else, they teach us that Christ is concerned about his church.  He’s concerned about who we are and what we do. 

            So, let’s take a look at some of the things that Christ wrote about.  As we read through these seven letters, we find Christ expressing concern about several things.

1.         Christ is Concerned About Our Needs

I heard about a family that went to see a movie, and on the way in, the young son stopped by the refreshment stand to pick up some popcorn. By the time he got into the theater, the lights were already dim.  He looked around and couldn’t find his family. He walked up and down the aisles looking for a familiar face.  When the lights began to dim even further, he finally stopped and called out, “Doesn’t anyone recognize me?”

            There is great comfort in knowing that Jesus Christ, the head of the church, recognizes each and every one of us.  In fact, every single one of these seven letters begins with the words, “I know” — “I see what’s going on, I know where you’re at.”  In each of these letters, the Lord says, “I know what’s happening in your congregation”, and there’s a great deal of comfort in realizing that. 

            Some of these churches were hurting, and Jesus lets them know that he is aware of their suffering.  For example, the Christians at Smyrna were undergoing all sorts of problems.  Christ says, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  (Revelation 2:9).   I know the kind of persecution you’re suffering because of your faith in me.

            One of the Christians in Pergamos had been killed for his faith.  Christ said to them, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” (Revelation 2:13). 

            The church in Philadelphia was being pressured by their Jewish neighbors to deny the name of Jesus.  Jesus said, “I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.  Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” (Revelation 3:8-9)

            In every one of those letters, Jesus said, “I know what’s going on.”  Furthermore, he promises to supply all of our needs, and to enable the church to withstand every test and meet every opportunity. 

            And that’s a promise that every Christian and every church needs to keep in mind.  Whenever we’re serving Jesus and nobody seems to notice or appreciate our efforts, Jesus says, “I know.  I see what’s going on.”.  Whenever we’re facing problems that seem to overwhelm us, Jesus says, “I know.  I see what’s happening.”.  Whenever we feel like we can’t make it one more step without having a nervous breakdown, Jesus says, “I know.  I see what you’re going through.”

And whatever the obstacle, whatever the opportunity, God will supply whatever we need in Christ Jesus.  Instead of reflecting on all the reasons why we ought to be discouraged, we need to remind ourselves that our Lord has promised to supply our every need.  And he knows what we need.

II.        Christ is Concerned About Our Faith

            These seven letters make it clear that Christ is concerned about what we believe.  In the first letter, he commends the Ephesians, “I know…how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” (Revelation 2:2).  I know that there are people there teaching things that are false, but you have held on to the truth.

            Pergamos didn’t do so well in this area though.  To them, Jesus said, “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:14-15). 

            We live in a world that wants to tell us that there is no truth and it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but Jesus makes it clear that there are some things that are true and there are some things that are false, and it makes a world of difference what we believe.  God has not called us to be gullible and believe everything we hear, but to be seekers of truth. 

            And one of the things that we dare not let go of is our faith in Jesus Christ.  Some of the Christians in these churches were suffering because of their faith in Christ.  Again, Jesus said to the church at Pergamum, “You hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you.(Revelation 2:13)

            Even in the face of persecution, these Christians were not letting go of their faith.  How much less excuse there is for those of us who have never been persecuted, if we fail to hold fast the truth of God’s Word. 

            The church can survive persecution.  That has been proven time and again.  The real question is this:  Can we survive prosperity?  Or is it possible that having it easy be our undoing?  It’s generally not been in times of persecution that Christians’ faith has declined, but during periods of peace and prosperity.

            I heard a humorous story years ago that ought to serve as a warning to every church in America.  Chuck Swindoll tells about going to Atlanta, and he noticed in the Yellow Pages, in the listing of restaurants, an entry for a place called “Church of God Grill”.  This unusual name aroused his curiosity and he dialed the number.  He asked this res­taurant how they got its name, and the man told him. 

            He said, “Well, we had a little congregation down here, and we started selling chicken dinners after church on Sunday to help pay the bills.  Well, people liked the chicken, and we did such a good business, that eventually we cut back on the church service.  After a while, we just closed down the church altogether and kept on serving chicken dinners.  We kept the name we started with, and called ourselves ‘Church of God Grill’.”

            When we forget the importance of remaining true to the word of God and our purpose as Christians, we may not be in danger of becoming a restaurant with a strange name, but we definitely will be in danger of becoming something other than what God intends for us to be.  Christ is concerned about what we believe.

3.         Christ is Concerned About Our Lifestyle

            The church at Ephesus had allowed their love to grow cold and their works to diminish, and the Lord rebuked them for that (Rev. 2:4-5).

            Thyatira, on the other hand, was full of good works but they were tolerating immorality in their midst, and they got rebuked for that as well.  Jesus said, “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.  But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” (Revelation 2:19-20).

            The letters to these seven churches remind us that Christianity can never be just a doctrine that we believe, but it must also be a lifestyle that we consistently practice.  Christ is concerned about our morals, our values, our priorities, our entertainment — everything about how we use our talents and spend our time.  But the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) influences of our world sometimes cause us to lower our standards and to put less emphasis on holiness and purity.  And often we don’t even notice the change. 

            And the problem is not just one of morals.  It’s the basic lifestyle of Christians in America.  John Gipson wrote an article where he said,

            “I wonder if being comfortable is not the beset­ting sin of most who call themselves Christians in our day and age.  I wonder if we have, unconsciously, lazily, selfishly, formally grown into a discipleship that Jesus himself would not acknowledge…

            “Is our definition of being a Christian simply to enjoy the privileges of worship, be generous at no expense to ourselves, have a good, easy time surrounded by pleasant friends and comfortable things, live re­spectably and have a good funeral?

            “How many of us are willing to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ?  How much is the Christianity of our day suffering for Christ?  Is it denying itself at the cost of ease, comfort, luxury, [and] elegance of living?…..

            He concludes by saying, “I am convinced that if Amos should visit us he would take one quick look around and cry out, ‘Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.’ (Amos 6:1).”

            Christ is concerned about our lifestyle.  He’s concerned not just what how we behave when we’re in the church building but with how we behave from day to day, in our homes, at work, driving around town, standing in line at the grocery store.  Christ is concerned about our lifestyle.

4.         Christ is Concerned About Our Willingness to Repent

            There are numerous calls for repentance in these seven letters, from sins such as immorality, lack of faith, and lukewarmness.  Jesus said to Ephesus, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Revelation 2:5).

            To Pergamos, Jesus said, “You have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:15-16)

            To Thyatira, Jesus said, “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her work.” (Revelation 2:21-22).

            To Sardis, Jesus said, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.” (Revelation 3:3).

            To the church in Laodicea, Jesus said, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:19).

            Keep in mind that all these letters were written to the church!  The question for us is this:  Are we open to being confronted with our sin?  Are we willing to change, to allow the Lord to mold, shape and correct us as needed?  Are we willing to confess our sins and admit our errors?  Our willingness to repent is absolutely essential if we are to be the Lord’s people.  Jesus wants to know, “Are you willing to repent?”

5.         Christ is Concerned About Our Faithfulness

            In a sense, everything I’ve talked about to this point involves being faithful, because a church and the Christians in it can be faithful only if they have their faith in Jesus Christ, if they are living holy lives, if they are willing to repent, and if they’re relying on the Lord to supply all their needs. 

            So, Jesus called the Christians at Smyrna to “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10).  We often take that verse to mean, we need to be faithful until the day we die.  If we live for 80 years, we need to be faithful for 80 years.  And that’s certainly a true statement.  But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. 

            What the Greek text here means is this — we need to be faithful unto death.  In other words, we need to be faithful no matter what, even to the point of dying for our faith.  And that’s something the Christians in these seven churches had to face.

The church in Thyatira is told to “hold fast what you have until I come.” (Revelation 2:25).  The Philadelphians are encour­aged to “hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Revelation 3:11).  Our goal as Christians is to remain faithful. 

I heard about an elderly Christian woman who once told her grand-daughter that she had been attending Bible class for almost 50 years.  The little girl looked at her grandmother sympathetically and patted her hand.   She said, “Don’t worry, Grandma.  Maybe this year you’ll pass the class.”

But that’s the thing about being in God’s school. It’s not about reaching the point where we know everything we need to know and so we move up a step.  It’s not about getting straight A’s.  It’s about being in class day after day, constantly learning, constantly growing, hanging in there through good times and bad.

            Paul often refers to our Christian life as a race, but the great thing about this race is that the prize is available not just to the person who comes in first place, but to everyone who finishes the race.

There’s a great story associated with the 1968 Summer Olympics.  In that year, the country of Tanzania selected John Stephen Akhwari to represent them in the Olympics in Mexico City.  While running the marathon, Akhwari stumbled and fell, severely injuring both his knee and his ankle, but he continued to run.  A couple of hours later, a runner from Ethiopia had won the race, and all other competitors had finished and been cared for. 

It was another hour and a half before Akhwari entered the stadium.  Almost everyone had left and gone home when Akhwari came limping through the gate, with his leg wrapped in a bloody bandage. The spectators who were still present began to cheer as this courageous man completed the final lap of the race.

Later, a reporter asked Akhwari the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Why did you continue the race after you were so badly injured?  You had no hope of winning.  Why didn’t you just quit.”

His answer was this.  He said, “My country did not send me 9,000 miles to begin a race.  They sent me 9,000 miles to finish the race.”

The Hebrew writer says, “Let us run with endurance  the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).

God doesn’t require that we come in first place.  He doesn’t demand that we bring 100 converts to Christ.  He doesn’t demand that we do more good works than anyone else.  He merely says that we must remain faithful, that we hang in there until the race is over.  And if we remain faithful until we die, we will receive the crown of life.

            By reading through these seven letters, we can see the sorts of things that Christ is concerned about for his church.  The message for us is we need to be concerned about those same things.

            As I pointed out earlier, each of these seven letters includes the words, “I know”.  In a similar way, Christ looks down on the church here at Cruciform and he says to each of us, “I know what’s going on.  I know the problems you’re experiencing, and I want you to know that I’ll see you through them.  I know what you’re doing to serve me, and I know what you’re failing to do.  I know whether or not your lifestyle is consistent with the holiness I expect.  I know whether or not you are holding the truth of God’s Word.  I know.”

            This morning, let us renew our commitment to do all these things.  Let us keep the faith, even in the midst of persecution.  Let us live holy lives.  Let us be willing to repent when we get off track.  And let us commit ourselves to be “faithful unto death”.

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