Messages to the Seven Congregations (2:1-3:22)

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In his messages to the seven congregations, Jesus Christ called attention to specific features about his glorious visionary manifestation to John. Each message concluded with the words, “Let the one having ears hear what the spirit says to the congregations.” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22) The messages were conveyed to John through the operation of God’s spirit (1:10), and thus the spirit did speak. The plural “congregations” indicates that the message directed to a particular group of believers in one of the cities of the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey) also had an application to believers in other locations. By heeding the messages, individuals would reveal themselves to be persons with attentive ears.

Ephesus

Being in Christ’s right hand, those represented by the seven stars were under his direction, emphasizing their responsibility to submit to him as their Lord. The fact that God’s Son spoke of himself as “walking among the lampstands” made it clear that he was fully aware of the conditions in each congregation. (2:1)

The “works” of believers in Ephesus are identified as their “labor and endurance.” Their toil involved strenuously resisting men who falsely claimed to be apostles. The Ephesian Christians had diligently exerted themselves to test the claims and then established them to be false. For the name of Christ or for his sake, they had faithfully endured. They continued to be his disciples, not growing weary or giving up when faced with opposition, hostility, and ill treatment from unbelievers. (2:2, 3)

Nevertheless, believers in Ephesus merited Jesus Christ’s disapproval for having abandoned their initial love. Apparently their love for God, his Son, fellow believers, and fellow humans had ceased to be what it once had been. They needed to consider their former condition and recall from what they had fallen because of their failure to let love have its full expression. This should have motivated them to repent and to change their ways, bestirring themselves to carry out the former works, works that were an expression of an intense love. If they failed to make the necessary changes, Jesus Christ’s special visitation would result in losing their place as a lampstand. The community of believers would cease to shed light through laudable conduct and would no longer, by word and deed, be making the glad tidings about their Lord known to others. (2:4, 5)

In their attitude toward the works of the Nicolaitans, Ephesian believers were one with Christ. The hatred of God’s Son respecting the teaching of those who followed Nicolaus suggests that it must have grossly misrepresented him and excused corrupt conduct. (2:6)

All heeding Christ’s admonition are assured of the blessings to be enjoyed by conquerors. By refusing to become part of a loveless world and letting Christ’s example and teaching serve to guide their thoughts, words, and actions, believers would prove to be victors. As such, they would be allowed to partake of the “tree” or “grove” of life in the “paradise of God,” signifying an eternity of life in an exalted heavenly estate as persons having divine approval. (2:7)

The message to the Ephesus congregation contains a sobering warning. Vigilantly resisting false teaching and not giving up one’s identity as a Christian are not enough for gaining Christ’s approval. He set the flawless example in manifesting love, surrendering his life for undeserving humans, and he expects his disciples to imitate him. (John 13:34, 35; 15:12-14; 1 John 3:16) How severe, therefore, will be the judgment upon members of religious movements who act hatefully toward persons who do not accept their unique doctrines and interpretations!

Smyrna

Jesus Christ called attention to two aspects of his glorious visionary manifestation—his being “the first and the last” and his being alive though he had once been dead. (2:8) This description may have served to reassure believers in the city of Smyrna that through him all of God’s promises would be fulfilled (2 Corinthians 1:20) and that they, too, would be restored to life if they remained faithful until death.

Fully aware of their suffering and poverty, the Son of God commended them for being spiritually rich. Apparently unbelieving Jews in the city blasphemed or maliciously slandered them, likely contributing to their becoming objects of intense hostility among the larger unbelieving non-Jewish population. (Compare Acts 14:1, 2, 4-6, 19; 17:5-9, 13, 14; 18:12-15.) When opposing Christ’s followers, the unbelieving Jews failed to live up to the significance of their name as God’s people (“Judah” meaning “praised” or “lauded”; Romans 2:29) and revealed themselves to be a “synagogue of Satan” (the opposer or resister). The poverty of the Christian community in the city may largely have been the result of persecution. (2:9)

Jesus Christ encouraged them not to fear future suffering. At the instigation of the devil (the “slanderer”), they would be imprisoned, an experience that would prove to be a test to them and could lead to their death. The reference to “ten days” is perhaps best understood as denoting “a mere ten days.” Tribulation or distress would not be prolonged indefinitely but would come to an end. Jesus Christ promised to crown them with life for remaining faithful until death, proving themselves to be victors as he had been. All victors are assured of an eternal future, for the second death (from which no restoration to life is possible) would never harm them. (2:10, 11)

The message to the congregation in Smyrna illustrates that godliness is not the sure path to material prosperity, as professing Christians associated with certain churches or movements have been led to believe. True riches are of a spiritual kind, and the possession of such cannot be gauged by the external circumstances of the individual. A focus on externals (growth in numbers, building projects, or reported activity) tends to mask the spiritual poverty existing among the members of various churches or movements.

Pergamum

Jesus Christ’s reference to the sharp two-edged sword suggested that he was not pleased with certain developments among believers in Pergamum. (2:12) It may have reminded them of the words of Isaiah’s prophecy (11:4), “With the spirit [or breath] of his lips, he will slay the wicked.”

Those addressed knew what it meant to be living where the “throne of Satan” is. Antipas, whom Christ acknowledged as his faithful witness (one who fearlessly testified about him) had been executed. Nevertheless, the community of believers in the city refused to deny Christ. They courageously held fast to his name, indicating that they continued to acknowledge him as their Lord, and they maintained their faith in him. (2:13)

Jesus Christ expressed his disapproval of those among them who held to the teaching of Balaam and that of the Nicolaitans. Shortly before the Israelites were to enter the land west of the Jordan and while they were encamped in the plains of Moab, the diviner Balaam taught the Moabite king Balak to use women to induce Israelite men to engage in idolatry and fornication. (Numbers 25:1, 2; 31:16) Evidently, therefore, adherents to the teaching of Balaam would have been guilty of engaging in idolatrous practices, including the moral corruption associated therewith. The teaching of the Nicolaitans must likewise have promoted God-dishonoring conduct. Only by repenting and changing their ways could the guilty ones escape having Christ war against them with the “sword of his mouth.” Otherwise, they would not escape his condemnatory judgment. (2:14-16)

To all who conquer, remaining devoted to him to the end, Jesus Christ promised to give the “hidden manna.” During Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, the miraculously provided manna served as their primary food. (Deuteronomy 8:3) Therefore, Christ’s giving the victors “hidden manna” suggests that he would impart to his faithful followers everything needed to sustain their life eternally. Believers in Pergamum knew the significance of being given a white stone inscribed with a new name, but Christians today do not know which, if any, of various possible explanations may be correct. (2:17) Based on the names he gave to Simon and the sons of Zebedee, the “new name” may reflect Jesus Christ’s intimate knowledge of the individual believer. (Mark 3:16, 17)

The message to believers in Pergamum highlights that courage in the face of severe persecution does not in itself lead to Christ’s approval. Christians are called upon to live lives of purity and will be judged for the way in which they use their bodies. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Hebrews 13:4; 1 Peter 1:14-17)

Thyatira

God’s Son reminded believers concerning the appearance of his eyes and his feet in his glorious visionary manifestation. (2:18) This may have served to call to their attention that nothing escaped his penetrating vision and that he required pure conduct. When Peter objected to having his feet washed, Jesus told him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” This prompted Peter to request that even his head and his hands be washed. Jesus then replied, “One who has bathed only needs to have his feet washed and is completely clean, and you [plural, including the other apostles] are clean, but not all.” (John 13:8-10) In this manner, Jesus revealed that more than physical cleanness was involved in continuing to have fellowship with him. While his disciples during their earthly sojourn continue to be in need of the cleansing he made possible because their walk is not flawless, he is pure in the ultimate sense. The glowing feet in the visionary manifestation would never need to be washed but would remain absolutely pure. The Son of God would not “walk” where impurity prevails and his requirements for cleansing are not met.

Among believers in Thyatira, Jesus Christ had observed their noble works or activities, their love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Their more recent activity as Christ’s disciples showed marked improvement in relation to their past works. (2:19)

Still, in their midst was a woman who displayed the spirit of Jezebel of old, concerning whose baneful influence on Ahab the Kings account reports, “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of [YHWH], urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols.” (1 Kings 21:25, 26, NRSV) The woman in Thyatira called herself a prophetess and led others to engage in idolatrous feasting and fornication. Although Jesus Christ had given her time to repent, she refused to do so. He determined to cast her upon a sickbed and greatly afflict those committing adultery with her if they did not repent. As for her “children,” he would kill them. In view of the severe punishment upon these “children,” it does not appear that they were her illegitimate offspring but likely were individuals who had so completely imbibed her spirit as to have gone far beyond the point of possible repentance. Christ’s severe judgment would demonstrate to all other congregations of believers that he searches “kidneys and hearts” (his eyes penetrating the inmost selves of all) and that he repays all according to their works. (2:20-23)

Not all in the Thyatira congregation had fallen for the insidious teaching, refusing to “learn” by experience the debased practices meriting the designation the “deep things of Satan.” God’s Son would not place upon them any other burden besides the commands they were required to observe. (Compare Acts 15:28, 29.) Until whatever time God’s Son might make his visitation, they were to be firmly determined to fulfill their obligations, abstaining from idolatrous feasting and the moral corruption associated therewith. (2:24, 25)

The conquerors (all adhering to his ways to the end) would share with Christ in the royal authority he had been granted by his Father. This authority over the nations included the right to execute judgment against those opposing his rule, shepherding them with an iron rod and smashing them like clay vessels. In 22:16, Jesus Christ calls himself the “morning star.” If the significance is the same here, his giving believers the morning star could refer to his granting them an intimate relationship with himself. On the other hand, the appearance of the morning star marks the end of the night and the start of a new day. This could point to the victors being liberated from all the distresses associated with the night of their earthly sojourn and granted the joys and blessings associated with the dawning of the new day as sharers in Christ’s royal authority. (2:26-28)

The message to the Thyatira congregation stands as a warning to women who have attained positions of prominence and influence among professing Christians and who condone and even engage in practices that Christ disapproves. (Compare Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 6:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8.) All who embrace their corrupt teaching and continue to engage in practices that are too shameful even to mention will not escape adverse judgment.

Sardis

To the congregation in Sardis, Jesus Christ identified himself as having the “seven spirits” (the fullness of God’s spirit operating upon him) and the seven stars (representing the seven angels or messengers of the congregations that were under his control and direction). He knew the actual state of the congregation. It had a “name” or reputation of being alive, probably among other congregations and the inhabitants of the city. Although seemingly active, the congregation was dead spiritually. Perhaps many Christians in Sardis had settled into a comfortable routine and were not stirred to action by deep love for God’s Son and his Father. Believers needed to wake up and strengthen those who were about to die spiritually, those who were nearing the point of ceasing to be persons who, in word and deed, furthered the cause of Christ. The “works” of the congregation should have been a reflection of deep concern for others and love for God, his Son, fellow believers, and people in the community. Jesus Christ, however, found their works to be defective, not fully performed before his God. As the one who intimately knew his Father or his God, Jesus Christ was thoroughly acquainted with what his God required. (3:1, 2)

Believers in Sardis needed to recall what they received or accepted and what they had heard. They had heard the glad tidings about Jesus Christ and the responsibilities associated with being his disciples, and they had accepted or responded to the teaching and started to live in harmony therewith. From the standpoint of “receiving,” they had been richly blessed when God’s spirit became the force that directed their lives. Consequently, they needed again to act in harmony with what they had accepted or received and heard, repenting and actively promoting the cause of Christ in word and deed. If they failed to wake up spiritually, they would face an unexpected visitation from him. He would arrive like a thief at a previously unknown “hour” or time. (3:3)

Still, a few in the Sardis congregation had not defiled their garments by failing to live up to their responsibilities as Christ’s disciples. God’s Son assured these faithful ones of being worthy to walk with him in white garments, identifying them as approved persons who carried out his Father’s will in purity. (Compare 19:8.) He promised to all victors or those remaining faithful to the end that they would thus be arrayed in white and not have their names blotted out of the scroll of life. Before his Father and the angels, Jesus Christ would acknowledge the name of each victor, indicating his approval of the individual as one belonging to him. (3:4, 5)

The message to the Sardis congregation indicates that it is possible to be deluded into thinking that visible public activity is an evidence of being spiritually alive. Such activity may have as its prime objective gaining converts for a particular movement and persuading others to adopt a belief system or support an agenda rather than advancing the cause of Christ. Persons associated with a movement may expend much time and energy, seemingly suggesting the existence of a vibrant community. In actuality, however, the activity may amount to little more than an exercise in futility and, even worse, distort Christ’s example and teaching.

Philadelphia

Jesus Christ identified himself as the one who is “holy” and “true.” As the one who is pure and trustworthy in every respect, he will always respond to the needs of his disciples and keep his word. Jesus Christ is the permanent heir of King David and in possession of the “key of David” or the full authority to admit persons into or exclude them from the kingdom (the realm where he is king). No one can alter whatever he opens or shuts. (3:7)

In the flawless estimation of God’s Son, the works of the congregation in Philadelphia deserved commendation. Apparently the open door Jesus Christ placed before believers in Philadelphia and which no one would be able to shut led to activity in advancing his cause. (Compare 1 Corinthians 16:8, 9; 2 Corinthians 2:12, 13.) Believers, likely because of their modest circumstances, possessed “little power” or carried little weight and had very limited influence in the city. Nevertheless, they heeded Christ’s word and did not deny his name or fail to acknowledge him as their Lord. Evidently they faced intense opposition from unbelieving Jews in Philadelphia. These Jews, like those in Smyrna, did not live up to their claim of being what their name stood for (“lauded” or “praised”), making them out to be liars. When opposing those whom God recognized as his approved people, they ceased to be an assembly of persons belonging to him and proved themselves to be the “synagogue of Satan” (the resister or opposer). Christ’s “giving” to believers those from that synagogue may mean that some of them would become believers or the giving may be in the sense that they would be made to bow down before the feet of believers, thereby humbly acknowledging that God is really among them. (Compare Isaiah 45:14; 60:14; 1 Corinthians 14:24, 25.) These Jews would also come to know that Christ loved his followers. (3:8, 9)

The expression “the word of my endurance” may be understood to mean Christ’s message to endure faithfully under test as he did. (Compare Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Hebrews 12:2, 3.) Because believers in Philadelphia had kept his word about endurance, Christ promised to keep them from the hour of test that would come upon earth’s inhabitants. This may mean that the distressing time to be experienced by others would not affect them in the same way. Although not exempted or immune, they would be safeguarded and sustained during the stressful time. (3:10)

Christ’s words, “I am coming quickly,” are timeless, assuring believers in every place and period of the certainty of relief from distress and encouraging them to regard his return with a sense of immediacy (not as being so distant in the future as to have no relevance for them). For believers in Philadelphia, his words added force to his admonition for them to keep fast hold on what they possessed as his disciples, resisting anyone who would cause them to forfeit their crown. This is a crown of victory, apparently signifying the glorious reward to be bestowed upon those who remain faithful to the end. (3:11)

In the temple of his God, Christ would securely position as a pillar the one conquering or proving faithful to the end. As a pillar, the victor would be identified as belonging to God, as a citizen of the new Jerusalem, and as belonging to Christ. This is indicated by the fact that God’s Son would write the name of his God, the name of the city of his God, and his own new name on the pillar or the victor. Christ’s new name may embrace all the power and authority granted him after his resurrection from the dead. (3:12)

The message to the congregation in Philadelphia illustrates that Christ can accomplish much with those who are devoted to him even though they may have “little power.” An open door stands before all who desire to advance his cause.

Laodicea

God’s Son identified himself as the “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.” (3:14) The designation “Amen” signifies “surely” or “so be it,” and conveys the thought of absolute trustworthiness (an attribute believers in Laodicea had failed to display). Christ is the faithful witness, for his testimony always is reliable. Never does his testimony fall short of the truth, and so, in the ultimate sense, he is the true witness. Grammatically, the designation “beginning of the creation of God” could be understood to mean that the Son is the first of God’s creation. This, however, does not fit the context of the vision in which the greatness and transcendent splendor of the Son have been the focus. It appears preferable to regard “beginning” as meaning the start, source, or origin of God’s creation. This would mean that Jesus Christ identified himself as the one “through whom all things came into existence and, without him, nothing came into existence.” (John 1:3)

The Son of God was aware of the great lack among believers in Laodicea. Their works did not merit commendation. Believers in Laodicea were neither hot nor cold. Absent were the intense devotion and zeal associated with one’s being “hot.” As the opposite of “hot,” “cold” may refer to a state where nothing of a spiritual nature seems to exist. This is not a condition that Jesus Christ would have desired for those in the congregation in Laodicea. When, however, individuals, from all appearances, are cold (like the harlots, tax collectors, and persons living a life of sin during the time Jesus walked on earth), hope exists that they may yet come to repentance. Individuals in a lukewarm, self-satisfied, complacent, or halfhearted state are less likely to return to a flourishing spiritual condition. Jesus Christ found the lukewarm condition nauseating and threatened to spit out all existing in this state. (3:15, 16)

Laodicean believers imagined themselves to be rich, supplied with an abundance, and needing nothing. To Christ’s penetrating gaze, though, they were miserable, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. They needed to change, becoming fully devoted to Christ and obtaining from him everything needed to improve their sad plight (represented by refined gold, white garments, and ointment). This would result in their prospering spiritually and ceasing to be in a spiritually exposed and blind state. (3:17, 18)

Christ’s strong reproof and discipline revealed his love for them, for he earnestly desired that they would become zealous and repent in order to be approved. He had not distanced himself from them, but portrayed himself as being at the door willing to be invited in. With anyone who responded to him, he would choose to enjoy fellowship, depicted by mutual participation in a meal. (3:19, 20)

Jesus Christ had been granted royal authority, sitting with his Father on his throne. With the victor, the one who proved faithful, Jesus would share his royal authority, granting the conqueror to sit with him on his throne. (3:21)

The message to the Laodicean congregation highlights the grave danger of being deluded into thinking that one is thriving spiritually. The leadership in certain movements often contributes to this delusion, claiming that those associated are being supplied with spiritual provisions to overflowing. The reality, however, falls far short of the pretentious claims, blinding many to their wretched spiritual plight.

Notes:

For pictures of the ruins of ancient Ephesus and comments about the city, see bibleplaces.com/ephesus.htm.

For pictures of the ruins of ancient Smyrna and comments about the city, see bibleplaces.com/smyrna.htm.

For pictures of the ruins of ancient Pergamum and comments about the city, see bibleplaces.com/pergamum.htm.

For information about Thyatira, including pictures, see holylandphotos.org.

For information about Sardis, including pictures, see bibleplaces.com/sardis.htm.

For information about Philadelphia, including pictures, see holylandphotos.org.

For information about Laodicea, including pictures, see bibleplaces.com/laodicea.htm.

The Greek name “Nicolaus” means “conqueror of the people” and seemingly finds a parallel in the name “Balaam,” possibly meaning “swallower of the people.” In their teaching, the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) may have followed the path of Balaam in promoting idolatry and the moral corruption associated therewith. Hippolytus (170-236) wrote that Nicolaus “departed from correct doctrine, and was in the habit of inculcating indifferency of both life and food.” Victorinus, decades later, said that the Nicolaitans taught “to the effect that what had been offered to idols might be exorcised and eaten, and that whoever should have committed fornication might receive peace on the eighth day.”