By Christopher VanDusen
For most believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, last year was a proving ground to test our faith in the Lord, and in His Word. The covid-19 pandemic, social and political unrest, and governmental persecution of churches put many Christians in situations that they’d never been in before. They were tested by these situations, and the strength of their faith in God’s Word was either proven to be great, or lacking.
And because individual Christians were proven, their churches were proven to either be biblical churches, or unbiblical churches. The biblical churches continued to devote themselves to the teaching of God’s Word, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, to prayer, and to fellowship. The unbiblical churches stopped practicing one or more of these things due to fear, confusion, and/or deception.
Churches that profess to believe the gospel were shown to fall into 1 of 3 categories last year. First, there were those that proved to be fake churches, which professed faith in Christ, but were unwilling to keep His commands in the face of fear or persecution. Second, there were those churches that stood up to persecution or the perceived threat of illness, and were faithful to Christ. Finally, some churches did the bare minimum to appear to be worthy of the name “Christian”, but really had no desire to obey Christ.
In Revelation 3, the Lord Jesus gives His messages to three such churches. These are the last three of the seven churches that He addresses in the Book of Revelation. The apostle John was tasked with sending this book to these churches that were experiencing the very same things that believers are now facing. They lived in the midst of idolatrous and immoral cultures, which were governed by rulers that were increasing their power, and their opposition to Christians. In addition, their world in the Roman Empire would soon suffer from political and social unrest, and the rapid destruction of their governments, communities, and economies. They would soon see the beginning of the fall of the Empire before their eyes. Therefore, the Lord sent an angel to John with this revelation, and commissioned him to send it to these seven churches in the western part of what is now modern-day Turkey — the province of Asia.
To introduce this revelation, John first explains who it came from; how he got it; what it describes; and how it will bless those who learn it. Then, he greets the churches with the grace and peace of the three Persons of God — the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ. He reminds them that Jesus is the faithful Witness, the most honored Person who rose from the dead, and the Ruler of all earthly kings. He concludes his greeting by promising that the Lord will return, and by relaying the Lord’s confirmation that He’s in control of history, including the churches’ circumstances.
Midway through the first chapter, John describes His vision of the Lord. He sees Him as resembling the Son of Man of Daniel 7, but standing among seven golden lampstands, and clothed with the robe of the church’s High Priest. Further, He’s holding seven stars, has white hair, eyes of fire, and hot bronze feet. He then speaks, comforting John by describing Himself as the Governor of history, and the Ruler of death and hell. Finally, He reveals that He’s actually standing among the seven churches, and controls the seven messengers that are going to deliver the revelation to each church.
In chapter 2, the Lord gives His specific messages to the first four churches. They are described as an uncaring church, a persecuted church, a compromising church, and an immoral church. In each message, the Lord describes what features of His appearance communicate what a church needs to know about Him; praises the church for it’s good qualities; criticizes the church for its faults, if any; addresses those who don’t need to be chastised; and then commands all the churches to listen to the message, promising those who overcome the difficulties described in the message of some reward to be received at the last judgment.
Following a similar pattern, the Lord turns to the last three churches in chapter 3. He describes them as a fake church, a faithful church, and a flippant church.
The Fake Church
In verses 1-5, the Lord gives His message to a fake church, which says,
““And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 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. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (ESV)
In this passage, the Lord teaches that He does six things for His church:
- He Administers the Spirit and Angels (or Messengers) (v. 1a)
- He Ascertains the Spirituality of their Activity (v. 1b)
- He Alarms them to Strengthen their Actions (v. 2)
- He Admonishes them to Submit to His Announcement (v. 3)
- He Accepts those with Unsoiled Activity (v. 4)
- He Acknowledges the Saints before Angels (vss. 5-6)
Jesus begins His message to this fake church in the Roman city of Sardis by describing Himself as the One who governs both the Holy Spirit, and the seven messengers of the churches. He does so by referring back to His appearance to John as “holding” the “seven stars”. These stars, of course, represent the seven “angels”, or messengers, that were sent by John to their respective churches with a scroll containing his explanation of the visions he was shown. As the One who “holds” the seven messengers, the Lord is the One who rules them, and has sent them to the church to deliver His revelation.
However, John adds that Jesus not only holds the seven messengers, but also “the seven Spirits of God”. These “Spirits” are the “seven Spirits” from whom John declares the seven churches have grace and peace in verse 4 of chapter 1. In that verse, these Spirits are said to be “before” the throne of “God”, which in the context refers to the Father. Since this greeting clearly is referring to the three Persons of God, these “Spirits” must represent God the Holy Spirit. John calls Him “seven Spirits” to emphasize the fact that He has a complete, or perfect, involvement in God’s rule of the universe. So, when the voice that John hears tells him that Jesus “has the seven Spirits”, it must be applying the Spirit’s complete involvement in God’s control to the church in Sardis. However, since it’s Jesus that holds the Spirit in His possession, He’s the One who both dwells among, and governs, the church, through the Spirit.
To finish verse 1, the Lord reveals that He knows the church’s true spiritual condition, despite its reputation. From their “works,” or actions, they’ve earned “the reputation of being alive”. By “alive”, Jesus means spiritually living in full fellowship with Him, and in obedience to Him. Nevertheless, He declares that they’re really “dead”, or have no true, loving, fellowship with Him, as a church. Although they claim to trust in Him as their Lord and Savior, most of them don’t.
Thus, in verse 2, the Lord alarms this church to strengthen what they’re doing, by commanding them to “wake up”. What are they to wake up from? From their spiritual death. The way He says to do this is by strengthening “what remains and is about to die”. “What remains” refers to their “works”, which He’s “not found . . . complete in the sight of [His] God”. What they’re doing appears to be done out of faith in Him, it’s really not. Therefore, they need to “strengthen” their actions by putting their trust in Him to save them from their sins, and provide them with God’s forgiveness. If they don’t do this, then even what they’re doing will “die”, since it’s “about to die”. This means that they’ll no longer be a gospel-confessing church at all.
In verse 3, the Lord explains how they need to strengthen their Christian living. First, they must “remember . . . what [they] received and heard”. This describes the good news of Christ’s incarnation, death for sins, resurrection from the dead, and the forgiveness of sins through faith in Him. Second, He tells them to “keep it, and repent”. The word “keep” literally means “pay close attention to”, so as to take the right course of action. So, they’re first to remember exactly what the gospel is, and obey its command to trust in Christ. The way they’re to do this is by “repenting”, which literally means “changing the mind”. They need to change their minds about their spiritual condition, and trust in the Lord to save them from it.
Next, Jesus warns this church that if they fail to “wake up, [He] will come like a thief, and [they] will not know at what hour [He] will come against [them]”. By describing His coming as that of “a thief”, He’s saying that He’ll come to them with no warning, or without knowing when He’ll come to them. This coming is clearly one of judgment, to make them cease being a church.
However, in verse 4, He turns to the faithful remnant in this church. He describes them as those “who have not soiled their garments”. By “garments”, He means their lifestyles. Although at one time most of the members of this church had had “unsoiled”, or clean lives, most of their lives had become unclean, or unchristlike. Yet there were “a few names”, or people, that hadn’t fallen away from Christian living. Jesus promises that they “will walk with [Him] in white, for they are worthy”. The whiteness of their clothing represents their eventual sinlessness on the new earth, and the fact that they’ll “walk” with Him means that they’ll have fellowship with Him. The reason He’ll allow them to do this is that “they are worthy”, since they have genuine faith in Him, and therefore live lives that glorify Him through obedience.
Finally, in the last two verses, the Lord gives a further promise that those who are worthy of walking with Him in white will be acknowledged by Him in the presence of God and His angels. He describes these worthy people as those “who conquer”. In this context, what they’re conquering is spiritual death, or alienation from God. He repeats His promise that such people will “be clothed . . . in white garments”. However, He adds that He’ll “never blot his name out of the book of life”. The “book of life” symbolizes the record of everyone who has been chosen by God to possess eternal life. These citizens of heaven will never have their names removed. On the contrary, Jesus promises that He’ll “confess [their] name before [His] Father and before his angels”. Not only will the divine record show that these people have eternal life, but Jesus Himself will confess to God the Father, and to His spiritual messengers and worshipers, that they’ve been chosen by Him to live eternally with Him.
To conclude His message, the Lord commands all who are listening to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches”. So, not only is this message for the church in Sardis, but it’s for all the churches to understand, and apply to their lives.
The Faithful Church
In verses 7-13, Jesus addresses the only church of the last three that has no need of correction, but only of comfort and encouragement. This is the message that He gives to it:
“7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: ‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.
8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 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. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (ESV)
In this passage, there are seven things that the Lord communicates:
- He’s the Only True Owner of David’s Key (v. 7)
- He’s Opened their Open Door without Closure (v. 8a)
- He Honors their Ounce of Dynamism for Constancy (v. 8b)
- He Obligates Himself to Own their Dearness to the Counterfeit (v. 9)
- He’ll Oversee their Avoidance of the Day of Conflict (v. 10)
- He Orders them to Own their Doctrine and Crown (v. 11)
- The Overcomer will Take Up the Divine Communion (vss. 12-13)
First, the voice speaking to John identifies this church as the one in the city of Philadelphia. “Philadelphia” literally means “brotherly love”, and is a fitting name for this church’s home, since Jesus promises to show their enemies that He’s “loved” them.
In the rest of verse 7, the Lord describes Himself as the only true Owner of David’s key. He first calls Himself “the holy one”, which is an allusion to one of God’s Old Testament names. It literally means “set apart one”, or “separate one”. As such, Jesus is set apart from all other people, and from the rest of creation itself, since He has a divine nature. This is a contrast to the Philadelphians’ persecutors, who are unholy. Second, He describes Himself as “the true one”, or the truthful One, who always tells the truth, and never deceives anyone. Again, this is in opposition to “the synagogue of Satan”, who “lie”. Finally, Jesus says that He “has the key of David”. This refers to God’s promise to David that one of his sons would rule His people, and an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7). The “key” represents control, or rule. Jesus uses this metaphor to picture Peter’s power to spread His rule over people in the Gospel of Matthew. This is seen when Peter is used to give the Holy Spirit to both the Samaritans, and the Gentiles, in the Book of Acts. Since Jesus has the key that God gave to David, He is the King of God’s people, and of the eternal kingdom. As King, He “opens” His kingdom to people, so they can enjoy it. That’s why He says that He “opens and no one will shut,” and vice versa.
In the beginning of verse 8, the Lord explains that He’s opened the church’s open door, so that it can’t be closed. Since He’s already linked His opening power to His authority to grant people access to His kingdom, this open door must refer to the open door to the final manifestation of His kingdom on earth, at the end of history. The reason that He’s made this door to be “set before” the church is that He knows their “works”. This means that the reason He’s given them access to His kingdom is that they’re living right.
Further, in the rest of verse 8, Jesus honors their ounce of power and constancy, which is the reason He’s given them an open door to enter. He assures them that He knows their “power” is “little”, or small. Power for what, though? He implies that this power is that which enables them to resist denying His “name”, since He points out that they’ve not done so. By His “name”, He means His identity as the God-man who came to earth to die for sins, to rise from the dead, and to provide God’s forgiveness for all who trust in Him. Despite the persecution they’ve suffered from “Jews” for their faith, they’ve refused to act as if Jesus isn’t God’s anointed Lord and Savior, or Christ.
In order to encourage and comfort this church about their persecution, the Lord obligates Himself to own them as His dear ones in the sight of their persecutors in verse 9. He describes their persecutors as “those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie”. A “synagogue” is a religious gathering of Jews for worship, but this one belongs to “Satan”, the most powerful evil angel, whose name means “opponent”. Although these Jews claim to be Jews, they’re really not, since they’re serving Satan. Jesus promises that these people who claim to be loved by God, and persecute this church for claiming that God loves them, will “come and bow down before [their] feet, and they will learn that [He] has loved [them]”. So those whom God loves will be revealed on the day of judgment, while the Jews who are mistreating the Lord’s loved ones will realize that they’re really under His wrath.
Secondly, Jesus promises this church that He’ll oversee their avoidance of the great day of conflict in verse 10. The reason He’ll do this is “because [they’ve] kept [His] word about patient endurance”. Again, by “keep”, He means “give attention to”, so as to rightly respond. The message they’ve kept is His one “about patient endurance”, or “perseverance”. As His seven messages to these churches, and the rest of Revelation show, this message is that those who want to receive eternal life at the end of their lives must keep trusting in Jesus as their Lord and Savior through their suffering of persecution. The Philadelphians have done so, so Jesus assures them that He’ll “keep [them] from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth”. By “trial”, He means a test that comes in the form of suffering. Since the great trial of the world that is consistently described in Revelation is the trial of Christ’s judgment of His enemies, this is, at the very least, what He’s referring to. Another reason for thinking this is that “those who dwell on the earth” refers to God’s enemies multiple times in this book.
After promising their avoidance of His judgment at His coming, Jesus then promises His imminent return, and orders them to own their doctrine and crown. He does so by telling them to “hold fast what [they] have”. This thing they possess is their acknowledgment of, and faith in, His name. The reason they must hold this tight is to prevent anyone from “seizing their crown”. As “the crown of life” does in Revelation 2, the crown is a reference to the crown of branches and leaves that was given to the winners of athletic contests at that time. Here, as in most places in the New Testament, it represents the enjoyment of eternal life on the new earth, in fellowship with the Lord. Although the Philadelphians claim to possess this crown already, it will symbolically be “seized” by their persecutors if they abandon and deny their faith to avoid persecution.
Finally, Jesus gives one last series of promises for those who “conquer” by holding fast to their faith. These promises describe the enjoyment of the divine communion in four ways. First, Jesus promises that He’ll “make” the conqueror “a pillar in the temple of [His] God”. In the Bible, the temple of God is where He most fully manifests Himself, and where He most reveals Himself to His people. Rather than going into the temple, the Lord promises that those who conquer apostasy, or falling away, will become part of God’s temple. In this way, they themselves will manifest God’s character, and enjoy intimate knowledge of Him. As a result, Jesus promises that they’ll “never . . . go out of it”.
Second, the Lord promises that He’ll “write on him the name of [His] God”. Again the “name” of God represents His identity and character, so this action represents the conqueror’s identification with God, as belonging to Him, and reflecting His character. Third, the conqueror will have “the name of the city of [Christ’s] God, the new Jerusalem,” written on him. This means that he’ll belong to this city. As Galatians 4, Hebrews 12, and the end of Revelation show, the new Jerusalem, which “comes down from . . . God out of heaven” represents the community of God’s heavenly people, who will come from heaven, and dwell on the new earth. Lastly, Jesus promises that He’ll write His “new name” on the conqueror. This is the name that Paul says the Father has given Him in Philippians 2:9-11, which is “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (ESV). As the context shows, this name is His identity as the “Lord” of the entire universe, including every conqueror, who will share in His rule.
Finally, Jesus again commands those who hear this message to understand what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The Flippant Church
In verses 14-22, the Lord gives His last message to a flippant, or careless, church:
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.
15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’” (ESV)
In this final message, Jesus teaches seven things to this flippant church:
- He’s the Trustworthy Witness and Creator (v. 14)
- He Tastes the Warmness of their Conduct (v. 15)
- He Detests their Wretched Conceit (vss. 16-17)
- He Tips them on Wealthy Christianity (v. 18)
- He Testifies to His Well-Intentioned Chastisement (v. 19)
- He Entrusts His Word to the Courteous (v. 20)
- He’ll Enthrone the One who Conquers (vss. 21-22)
First, the Lord identifies the church that’s to receive this message as the one “in Laodicea”. This city was famous for its wealth, but infamous for its poor drinking water. Yet, nearby was one city that enjoyed excellent drinking water. On the other hand, another city close by possessed hot springs that were used to improve people’s health. In contrast to these two cities, the church in Laodicea lacked good water, just as it lacked spiritual life.
Next, Jesus describes Himself as the trustworthy Witness and Creator. He first calls Himself “the Amen”, which literally means “the so be it”. By using this word as His name, He’s expressing the fact that everything about Him is genuine, and everything He promises comes to pass. Second, He’s “the faithful and true witness”, or the trustworthy and truthful testifier. This emphasizes that all that He’s about to say is true, and ought to be paid attention to. Finally, He’s “the beginning of God’s creation”. Since He wasn’t created, this can only mean that He’s the cause of God’s creation, or the Person through whom God the Father created the universe. As the Creator, He possesses everything that the church in Laodicea needs, and is able to give it to them.
In verse 15, the Lord expresses His taste of the church’s conduct by saying that they’re “neither cold nor hot”. This is a reference to their city’s water supply, which was neither cold, like that of one nearby city, nor hot like the hot springs that weren’t far away. Rather, it was warm and filthy. However, like those water supplies, Jesus declares that He wishes the Laodiceans were “either cold or hot”. Then, they’d be pleasing to Him.
So, in verses 16-17, He complains that He detests what makes them lukewarm — their wretched conceit. First, He threatens that, “because [they’re] lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, [He’ll] spit [them] out of His mouth”. This means that He’ll no longer use them like drinking water, and will instead reject them as one of His churches, making them cease to be a church. The reason He gives for their lukewarmness is that they say that they’re “rich”, “have prospered”, and “need nothing”. Yet, they don’t see that they’re really “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”. In other words, they were materially rich, prosperous, and well off, but spiritually they were miserable, suffering, impoverished, ignorant, and naked.
Therefore, in verse 18, the Lord tips them on how to be truly wealthy Christians. He “counsels” them to “buy from [Him] gold refined by fire, so that [they] may be rich, and white garments so that [they] may clothe [themselves] and the shame of [their] nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint [their] eyes, so that [they] may see”. The gold represents the pure, eternal, wealth that’s enjoyed by those who know Him. The “white garments” represent the innocence before God that comes from being forgiven by Him, so He doesn’t see their “nakedness”, or guilt. And the “salve”, or ointment, symbolizes God’s power to make them understand their spiritual condition, and the gospel, so that they appreciate the greatness and glory of the Lord. And He “counsels”, or “advises”, them to buy all these things from Him. Yet, as He says in Isaiah 55:1, these things can only be bought “without price”, since they’re free gifts (ESV).
Further, in verse 19, Jesus gives them another reason to receive these gifts by faith. He testifies that those He loves, He “reproves” and “disciplines”. In other words, He’s pointing out this church’s arrogance and spiritual poverty because He loves them. Thus, He commands them to “be zealous and repent”. Because He loves them, and has judged them for their sin, they need to be passionate about what He’s said, and change their minds about it.
In verse 20, He entrusts His Word to those who are courteous toward Him. He pictures Himself as standing in front of the “door” of the church building, and knocking. Then, He promises that “if anyone hears [His] voice and opens the door, [He] will come in to him and eat with him, and he with [Him]”. This description of eating with the church member who invites Him into the church building conveys intimate friendship and fellowship.
To conclude this message, the Lord promises that He’ll enthrone the one who conquers spiritual arrogance, blindness, and nakedness by receiving His forgiveness and salvation. He describes it as granting “him to sit with [Him] on [His] throne, as [He] also conquered and sat down with [His] Father on his throne”. This means that He’ll let the conqueror to share in His rule of the new earth, as a joint ruler, just as He shares in His Father’s rule of the entire universe. Lastly, the Lord concludes this message by again calling all who can hear to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.
Check Your Pulse, Use Your Power, and Be Loving
If you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how do these messages apply to you?
First, does your gospel-confessing church have the reputation of being spiritually living, but is really spiritually dead? If so, then you need to “wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die”, since your church’s activity isn’t complete in God’s sight. This means that your church needs to remember the gospel, learn it, and repent. If your church doesn’t wake up, then the Lord will eventually make it cease being one of His churches. Whatever you do, make sure that you don’t “soil” your clothing along with dead church members, since it’s only those with holy lives that will walk with the Lord on the new earth, and be acknowledged by Him as one of His.
Second, just like the Philadelphian church, if you only have “little power”, you have the power to keep the Lord’s Word, and avoid denying His name. If you obey His command to patiently endure persecution, then He will keep you from His judgment when He returns. So hold the gospel fast, so that no one will take your crown. If you do these things, then the Lord will write God’s name, the new Jerusalem’s name, and His name, on you.
Third, does your church boast in its material wealth, its material success, or its lack of physical needs? If so, then most of your church’s members are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”. They need to buy from the Lord pure gold, white garments to clothe themselves, and eye ointment to give them spiritual sight. If you love them, then you’ll rebuke and discipline them, in the hopes that they’ll be zealous and repent. With such churches, the Lord stands at the door and knocks, and promises to come in and with whoever hears Him, and invites Him into the church. Those who conquer the deceitfulness of, and love for, riches or comforts, will sit down with the Lord on His throne at the end of their lives.
If you have an ear, then hear what the Spirit says to His churches.
If you’re spiritually dead, or have your hope and trust in your physical well-being, then you are wretched, poor, blind, and naked, and are heading for eternal punishment. The good news is that God sent 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 our Ruler. He now commands everyone to change their minds, and trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior to receive His forgiveness, mercy, and peace. Please make sure that you’ve repented of your rebellion against the Lord, and are trusting only in Him to provide you with God’s forgiveness. If you have, 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.