By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have suffered and learned much in the year 2020. Several things stand out. Some of us have learned that we’ve grown to love discernment, service, or evangelism so much, that we’ve grown cold in our love for one another. Others have seen that they can reasonably expect to suffer more persecution in the near future. Still others have been so affected by great events of this year that they’ve let false teaching creep in to their lives, or the life of their church. And some have let sinful church members go on sinning, and influence others to do so, without confronting them.
All of these situations are described in Revelation 2, and the Lord has a message for each one of them.
On the threshold of 2020 and 2021, many Christians are looking ahead to next year with great anticipation. They’ve seen that the world as we once knew it has come to an end, and a new way of living is being formed. Many are wondering what next year will bring. The Book of Revelation tells us.
Revelation was written to seven churches that were in a very similar situation to us. They had been experiencing increased persecution, and the Roman Empire was soon going to go through severe political and social upheaval. As a result of their responses to their environments, these seven churches in modern-day Turkey were in situations that needed a direct revelation from the Lord. The theme of this revelation is “the things that must soon take place”, which would culminate in the return of Christ, and the creation of the new universe.
The apostle John received this revelation from Christ through one of His angels, and he sent it to the churches in the Roman province of Asia. To begin the Revelation, he first explains who it came from, what it’s about, and who will be blessed by rightly responding to it. Then, he greets the seven churches with grace and peace from God. He follows this greeting with the promise of Christ’s return, which is confirmed by Him.
To conclude the first chapter, John describes his first vision of the Lord. This sets up the individual messages that He gives to the churches in the next two chapters. He’s described as “one like a son of man” who’s standing among “seven golden lampstands” with “seven stars” in His hand. He’s clothed in a priestly robe, and He looks like He’s ready to judge people, and to punish His enemies. Upon seeing Him, John passes out, but Jesus awakens him, and commands him to write what He’s about to tell and show Him.
In chapter 2, then, Jesus gives His messages to the first four churches of Asia, which consist of an uncaring church, a conflicted church, a compromising church, and a carnal church.
The Uncaring Church
In verses 1-7, John is told this about the first church:
““To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and 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. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 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. 6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” (ESV)
In this message, the Lord communicates 6 things to this uncaring church:
- He Presides Over the Angels and Churches (v. 1)
- He Praises Their Ardent Conflict (v. 2)
- He Praises Their Admirable Constancy (v. 3)
- He Reproves Their Abandonment of Caring (vss. 4-5)
- He Permits Their Abhorrence of Corruption (v. 6)
- He Promises the Apple of the Kingdom (v. 7)
First, the first voice that John heard tells him to write a message to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a very important commercial center, since it was near the coast of what’s now Turkey, and it brought many people and wealth into it with its temple of the goddess Diana, or Artemis. For this reason, it was full of idolatry, false religion, and even magic. It was in the midst of this false worship and spiritual darkness that the Ephesian church worshiped and made disciples.
The first thing that the Lord tells the Ephesians is that He “holds the seven stars in his right hand”. He’s just said that the seven stars represent the “seven angels” of the churches. The Greek word translated “angels” literally means “messengers”, so these are the men tasked with delivering John’s revelation to their respective churches. The fact that Jesus “holds” them in His “right hand”, which is the hand of authority and power, means that He has control over them, so the message they bear to the church in Ephesus is directly from Him. Secondly, He “walks among the seven golden lampstands”. The lampstands represent the seven churches in Asia, so the fact that He “walks among” them means that His Spirit is with them, and He knows everything about them. Therefore, He knows exactly what they need to hear.
In verse 2, He praises them for their ardent conflict against evil by telling them that He knows their “works”, “toil”, “patient endurance”, and that they “cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false”. So, this church is hard-working, steadfast, and tests those who claim to be “apostles”, or literally “sent ones” from Christ or the church. How did they test them? Either by Scripture, or by the teaching they’d received from the official apostles, like John.
In verse 3, Jesus also praises them for their constancy by acknowledging that they’re “enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake,” and “have not grown weary”. So, this church is also patient and persevering in preaching the gospel of Christ, and seeking to obey Christ in the face of persecution. They’re determined and bold.
However, the Lord reproves them for their abandonment of “the love [they] had at first”. What love is this? Well, they clearly love truth and Christ’s “name”, or identity and work, but it seems that they were so focused on fighting against falsehood, and seeking to preach the gospel, that they’d lost the love they had for one another. They’d become so outwardly focused, that they’d forgotten that Christ’s main command was to “love one another as I have loved you”.
Thus, the Lord commands them to “remember . . . from where [they’ve] fallen”, and to “repent, and do the works [they] did at first”. The word “repent” literally means to “change your mind”, so they needed to change their mind about what mattered most, and love one another as they had when they had first become Christians. Jesus warns that if they don’t do this, He’ll “come to [them] and remove [their] lampstand from its place”. In other words, He would remove them as a church from Ephesus if they didn’t repent and return to love for one another.
In verse 6, Jesus again commends their love for truth and righteousness by saying that they “hate the works of the Nicolaitans”, which He also hates. According to verse 14, these people taught that it was good to eat “food sacrificed to idols”, and to engage in sexual immorality.
In verse 7, the Lord calls anyone with “an ear” to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. So, this isn’t just a message from Jesus, but also from God the Spirit, and it’s not just for the Ephesians, but for all “the churches”.
The conclusion of this first message is that whoever “conquers”, or overcomes the temptation to abandon love for others will be granted to “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. This is an allusion to the tree of life in the garden of Eden, which God said would give eternal life to anyone who ate its fruit. Hence, eating from this tree represents obtaining eternal life “in the paradise of God”.
The Conflicted Church
In verses 8-11, the Lord gives His message to a church that wasn’t practicing any sin, but was being persecuted:
“8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.
9 “‘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. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” (ESV)
In this message, the Lord says four things to this church:
- He’s Sovereign Over Death (v. 8)
- He Sympathizes with Their Difficulties (v. 9)
- He Strengthens Them for Their Distress (v. 10)
- He Shields Them from Damnation (v. 11)
First, Jesus identifies this church as the one in Smyrna, and describes Himself as “the first and the last, who died and came to life”. By “the first and the last”, He means that He’s the first of everything, and the the last of everything. In other words, He existed before the universe did, and He’ll determine the end of this universe. Further, He has control over death, since He “came to life”. Therefore, He’s in control of what happens in the entire universe, and He’s in control of people’s deaths.
In verse 9, He sympathizes with the Smyrnans difficulties by telling them He knows their “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”. By “tribulation”, He simply means “trouble”, and by “slander”, He means lies about them that are intended to damage their reputation. The slanderers are those who claim to be “Jews”, but “are not”. They claimed to be God’s people, but the fact that they maliciously slandered God’s people proved that they weren’t.
In verse 10, Jesus strengthens them for the distress they’re about to face by forbidding them from fearing “what [they’re] about to suffer”. He describes this suffering as “the devil” throwing “some of [them] into prison . . . and for ten days [they] will have tribulation”. Why does He say that the devil, or literally “slanderer”, is going to throw them into prison? Because the devil is the evil angel influencing the slanderous false Jews to get them imprisoned. Clearly, they’re going to lie about them in order to do this. However, the Lord’s purpose for them being imprisoned is “that [they] may be tested”, to prove that they’re faith in Him is genuine. But this testing will require them to “be faithful unto death”, implying that at least some of them will die as a result. Despite dying, those who stay faithful, loyal, and devoted to Him will receive “the crown of life” from Him. This is a reference to the crown of branches that was given to the victor of athletic contests in those days. As the rest of the New Testament references to this crown show, this crown isn’t a literal crown, but represents spiritual life in the next life.
Finally, Jesus again commands those who are hearing this message to hear the Spirit’s message to the churches in this address. Then, He promises whoever conquers persecution by trusting in Him that they won’t be “hurt by the second death”. At the end of Revelation, this second death is described as being “thrown into the lake of fire, which burns with fire and brimstone”. Whoever conquers will be protected from being separated from fellowship with God for eternity.
The Compromising Church
In verses 12-17, the Lord gives this message to a church that was compromising with false teaching:
“12 “And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: ‘The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword.
13 “‘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. 14 But 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. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth. 17 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” (ESV)
In this message to the Pergamum church, the Lord describes five things to them:
- He’s Ready for War (v. 12)
- They Retain Their Witness (v. 13)
- They Regard Wickedness (vss. 14-15)
- Their Repentance is Wanting (v. 16)
- He’ll Reward with a White Stone (v. 17)
According to professor Dennis E. Johnson in his commentary on Revelation, the city of Pergamum was home to two temples to false gods, and one altar to Zeus on its highest point. However, it’s not because of the city’s idolatry that Jesus describes Himself as “him who has the sharp two-edged sword”. This sword is the one that John saw coming out of Jesus’s mouth in chapter 1. It represents the destructive power of His Word, and in this message, its not aimed at the city, but at the church in the city.
Nevertheless, in verse 13, Jesus recognizes that this church lives “where Satan’s throne is”. This evidently means that Satan had made this city the place where he controlled people the most, at least compared to the other cities of the seven churches. This meant that this church faced severe temptations, and fierce opposition from unbelievers for worshiping the Lord. That’s why He praises them for holding “fast [His] name”, or identity, and for not denying His “faith even in the days of Antipas [His] faithful witness, who was killed among [them], where Satan dwells”. By “my faith”, Jesus means His teaching about Himself that’s summed up in the gospel. Despite the fact that one of them was martyred for being a “faithful witness” of Christ’s identity and work, and that they were still persecuted, they kept preaching the gospel, and worshiping together.
In verses 14-15, however, the Lord chastises them for regarding wickedness. This compromise consists of “a few things”. They “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.” Balaam is a fake prophet of God in the Book of Numbers who’s hired by Balak, a Gentile king, to curse the nation of Israel. Though he tries multiple times, he’s unable to get Balaam to curse them. Instead, Balaam tells Balak to introduce the Israelites to Gentile women who cause them to “eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality”. Both of these practices were acts of participation in the worship of a false god.
Jesus indicts them because, in the same way that Balaam taught Balak to get God’s people to engage in idolatry and sexual sin, “so also [they] have some whohold the teaching of the Nicolaitans”. Obviously, these Nicolaitans did the same thing as Balaam — they taught some members of this church that they should eat food sacrificed to idols, and practice sexual immorality. And these church members were not only doing these things, but teaching others to the same. Such practices were “stumbling blocks” for their righteousness, and their witness in the city.
Thus, in verse 16, the Lord commands them to “repent”. He warns that if they don’t, He’ll “come to [them] soon and war against them with the sword of [His] mouth”. In other words, He’ll hurt them somehow, and probably kill them.
He ends this message by again calling all who hear it to hear the Spirit’s message. Then, He promises those who conquer the teaching of the Nicolaitans that He’ll give them two things. First, He’ll give “some of the hidden manna”. “Manna” is the grain-like food that God gave the Israelites from the sky in the wilderness, and here represents the enjoyment of spiritual life on the new earth. Second, Jesus promises the overcomer that He’ll give him “a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it”. There have been a couple of interpretations proposed for this white stone, but certainty is impossible. The important things are its color, and its inscription. It’s white because it’s holy, and it has a new name for its recipient that only he or she knows. The implication is that not only does the recipient know what the Lord has called him, but so does the Lord. Thus, they’ll share an intimate knowledge of one another for all of eternity.
The Carnal Church
In verses 18-29, the Lord addresses the fourth church, which has gone beyond compromise with false teaching, into the toleration of rampant sin:
“18 “And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
19 “‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. 20 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. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. 22 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 works, 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. 25 Only hold fast what you have until I come. 26 The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. 28 And I will give him the morning star. 29 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (ESV)
In this message, the Lord describes six things about this disgusting situation:
- He’s Enflamed for Judgment (v. 18)
- They’ve Increased in Jesus (v. 19)
- They Entertain a Jezebel (v. 20)
- He’s Executing Justice (vss. 21-23)
- He Encourages the Just (vss. 24-25)
- He’ll Endow Judgment and Joy (vss. 26-29)
First, the voice of Revelation says that this church is in Thyatira. This was the home of Lydia, who was the first person to be saved in the city of Philippi. She was a “seller of purple fabrics”, according to the Book of Acts, and she had Paul and his traveling companions stay at her home. Since she had traveled across the sea to Philippi, and sold such valuable fabric, this shows that Thyatira was home to at least some wealthy merchants, including women like Lydia. Perhaps “Jezebel” was one such wealthy merchant.
To the church in Thyatira, Jesus describes Himself as “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze”. The fact that He’s “the Son of God” means that He possesses God’s very nature and authority. Second, His fiery eyes represent His destructive and purifying evaluation of evil. Finally, His “burnished”, or red hot, bronze feet symbolize His authority and power to judge evil.
In verse 19, He begins His evaluation of this church by commending them for their “love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that [their] latter works exceed the first”. So, this church is loving; has faith in His Word; is full of servants; is persevering through suffering; and has grown in its service of others.
Nevertheless, in verse 20 the Lord rebukes them for tolerating “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”. Whether this woman is actually named Jezebel, or merely called Jezebel because of her similarity to the Old Testament villain, she’s clearly doing just what Jezebel did. She was an evil woman who caused at least one Jewish king to worship false gods, and promote such worship in Jewish society. This woman is doing the same thing — leading those whom the Lord literally calls His “slaves” (from douloi) to engage in idolatry by eating food sacrificed to idols, and practicing the extra-marital sex involved with it. Even worse, she falsely claims to be “a prophetess”, evidently using such a claim to give herself the authority and credibility to teach her wickedness as if its pleasing to God.
In verses 21-23, the Lord promises to execute justice on Jezebel, and those who follow her teaching. First, He lets the church know that He “gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality”. Thus, He assures them that He “will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her . . . into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and [He] will strike her children dead”. While she has no time left to repent, and will be struck with debilitating illness, and her children killed, her followers will be spared of great trouble if they repent of idolatry and “adultery”. He’s going to punish her and her children to make “all the churches . . . know that [He] searches mind and heart, and [He’ll] give to each of [them] according to [their] works”. In other words, He knows everything about them, and He’ll reward them in accordance with how they live.
Despite His harsh words for those who are practicing sin in this church, Jesus encourages those who are living right in verses 24-25. These people are “the rest” in Thyatira, “who do not hold” Jezebel’s teaching, and “have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan”. So, not only was Jezebel teaching idolatry, but she was also teaching things that people recognized came from “Satan”. To those who have kept themselves from following such teaching, Jesus doesn’t give “any other burden”. The only thing He tells them to do is “hold fast what [they] have” until He comes to take them home.
Finally, He ends this message by promising those who conquer Jezebel’s teaching, and “the deep things of Satan” by holding fast to Christ’s teaching that He’ll endow them with judgment and joy. First, He describes such a person as he “who keeps my works until the end”. By His “works”, He means the way of living that He Himself practiced when He was on earth, and demands His followers to.
To such people He first promises to “give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as [He] received authority from [His] Father”. By “authority over the nations”, He means the authority to participate in the judgment of unbelievers during the completion of Christ’s kingdom on earth. They’ll only have this authority Jesus will share the authority He received from God the Father.
The second thing that Jesus promises the overcomer of Jezebel’s teaching is that He’ll give him “the morning star”. Since He calls Himself “the morning star” in Revelation 22:16, this must mean that He’ll give of Himself to the overcomer. The reason He calls Himself “the morning star” is that, just as the brightest star that appears in the morning heralds the dawn of a new day, so also the appearance of Christ at His return will announce the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth.
The Lord ends this message by telling all who hear it to hear what the Spirit is saying through it to “the churches”.
Keep Loving, Be Courageous, Be Faithful, and Be Holy
If you’re a believer in the Lord, how does this passage apply to you?
First, though you ought to be discerning, to fight falsehood, and fight false teachers, you have to remember that the most important thing to the Lord is loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, and loving our neighbors.
Second, if it you’re being persecuted, or expect to be persecuted, don’t fear your persecutors, but remember that no matter what happens, if you’re faithful to the Lord, He’ll give you eternal life.
Third, although you ought to seek to grow in love, faith, perseverance, and service, you need to watch out for any compromise with idolatry or sexual sin in any form. That’s why John ends 1 John with, “guard yourselves from idols”, and Paul repeatedly warns against sexual immorality of any kind.
Fourth, you need to watch out for people in your church who “teach” or “seduce” others to compromise with idolatry or sexual sin. All such people must be rebuked, and prohibited from fellowship if they don’t repent. The consequences of practicing sin by a Christian can be illness, or even death.
If you’re loveless, worshiping anything other than the true God, or practicing sexual sin, then you’re still an enemy of God, and are heading for the second death. The good news is God send His eternal and divine Son to earth to become a man, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross for our rebellion against God. Then, He raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. He now commands everyone to change their minds, and to trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His mercy, forgiveness, and peace, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly, and punish all His enemies forever. Please make sure you’ve repented, and are trusting in Christ as your Lord and Savior from sin. If so, then He requires all of His people to be baptized under water as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.
All Scripture quotations are taken from the:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.